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BOLIVIA: Morales Predicts 500 Years of Indigenous Rule

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 23 2006 (IPS) - With his left fist in the air and his right hand on his chest, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, promised to recuperate the country’s natural resources and to undertake drastic measures to uproot corruption in order to “save” Bolivia.

The leader of the leftist Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) predicted in his inaugural address Sunday the start of 500 years of government under indigenous rule, as a change from 500 years of struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism.

“Under Morales, today marks the start of indigenous leadership on the continent, to tell the world that an end to discrimination has come with the government of native peoples,” Vice-President Álvaro García told a rally in the downtown San Francisco plaza in La Paz, where Bolivians were celebrating with traditional Andean and Amazon jungle folk music after the inauguration ceremony in Congress.

Around a dozen heads of state and government attended the inauguration ceremony, including presidents Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, as well as Crown Prince Felipe of Spain.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos also paid a historic visit to Bolivia, to attend the swearing-in ceremony. Bolivia and Chile broke off diplomatic ties in 1978 after negotiations over Bolivia’s demand for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean collapsed.

Bolivia was left landlocked when it was defeated by Chile in the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific.

Morales warmly expressed his gratitude for the visit by Lagos, the first Chilean president to attend an inaugural ceremony in Bolivia in 51 years.

Bolivia’s new president, an Aymara Indian, was sworn in exactly four years after he was expelled from Congress thanks to the votes of a coalition cobbled together by then president Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002) – the same rightwing leader he defeated in the Dec. 18 elections.

Morales, the then leader of the country’s coca growers association, was accused in January 2002 of being ultimately responsible for the death of an army officer and his wife. They were killed during a harsh crackdown on protests by coca farmers in the central coca-growing region of Chapare. The accusation was never proven.

“When I was expelled, I announced that I would come back with 40 lawmakers, and probably with 80, and today I am keeping my word,” he said, referring to his triumph on Dec. 18, when he took 53.7 percent of the vote and became the first presidential candidate to win a first-round victory in Bolivia since the country’s return to democracy in 1982.

“Evo is a murderer, a terrorist and a drug trafficker,” according to those who called for an end to “radical trade unionism,” Morales recalled. But he said the smear campaign against him only fuelled the growth in support among the low-income and middle-class sectors that brought him his landslide victory.

Bolivia’s new leader announced a policy opposed to the neoliberal, free-market economic model, and announced that public services, like water, will not be privatised.

During the campaign, MAS pledged to nationalise Bolivia’s abundant natural gas reserves, which were granted in concession to foreign oil companies in 1996 as part of a privatisation programme.

One of the new government’s priorities will be to investigate cases of trafficking of influence and illicit enrichment in the building of the country’s roads, a task that absorbs hundreds of millions of dollars a year in investment.

Morales promised that in his five years in office he would put an end to the “plunder” of Bolivia’s natural resources, through a policy focused on adding value to the country’s commodities and offering job opportunities to young college graduates, who form a large part of the flow of migrants to the United States and Europe.

On the social front, he announced an all-out battle against a 22 percent illiteracy rate, the creation of a social security system that will provide universal coverage, and health care for rural areas in the form of mobile hospitals.

More than 60 percent of Bolivia’s nearly nine million people are indigenous, and 70 percent live in poverty.

With respect to the conflict-ridden issue of the need for land, Morales said his administration would respect productive property while redistributing unproductive land to landless farmers.

Mincing no words, he called for international development aid and the cancellation of Bolivia’s 4.5 billion dollar debt, stating that the poor did not benefit from the bilateral or multilateral credit granted in the past.

He offered the United States an “effective” alliance against drug trafficking, but clarified that the current coca eradication plan known as “zero coca” would be scrapped.

“We are convinced that drugs do harm to humanity, but the fight against drugs must not serve as an excuse to subjugate our people. We want dialogue without blackmail,” said Morales.

The United States donates 150 million dollars a year to the fight against drugs, social programmes and the generation of alternative livelihoods for farmers who agree to give up growing coca, which has a number of traditional uses by indigenous people in the Andes mountains but is also the raw material for producing cocaine.

On Monday, Morales swore in his cabinet, which includes indigenous leaders, women and middle-class professionals, who will carry out their work “under a strict austerity plan,” he added.

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