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19 Dec 2005 09:40
Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president-elect, wears sneakers but never a jacket and tie. And that is not the only aspect about the fiery left-winger that is going to shock the world.
Bolivia’s first native Indian president, who is simply known as “Evo” across the country, wants to rein-in United States influence and end restrictions on the coca crop that he made his life from before entering politics.
Morales (46) said South America’s poorest country had entered a new era after his main opponent conceded defeat in Sunday’s presidential election.
He has vowed to increase state control of Bolivia’s oil and gas industry as a way to distribute wealth.
Morales says his country is in need of drastic change.
The poverty of his own upbringing has marked much of his politics.
The son of both Aymara and Quechua indigenous parents, Morales was born on October 29, 1959 in the mining region of Orinoca, high in the Andes mountains.
His family was so poor that four of his six siblings died before reaching the age of two.
Morales dropped out of high school and left home in the early 1980s as the region was struck by a drought and a collapse of the mining industry.
With many indigenous highlanders he left to start a farm in the Chapare region where many raised coca, the source plant for cocaine.
To survive Morales took on odd jobs, including work as a traveling musician and a football player.
With that background he became sports secretary of the Chapare coca producers guild. Soon he was the leader of about 30 000 poor families linked to farming coca plants.
Coca has been cultivated in the Andes for thousands of years, used mainly for medicinal and religious purposes. But cultivation boomed in the 1980s with the growth of the international drug trafficking trade, and especially with the growth of the Colombian drug cartels.
In the 1990s the US government pumped millions of dollars into efforts to eradicate coca production. Coca farmers and US-funded anti-drug police clashed frequently.
Morales, a popular leader of the farmers, was elected to Congress in 1997 representing the region. In 2002 he ran for the presidency at the head of his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. He came just two points behind conservative Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who became president.
In October 2003 Morales led mass protests that led to Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation over the future of the natural gas industry that is one of the bright spots in South America’s poorest country.
In his final campaign rally in La Paz, Morales vowed to a delirious crowd of 10 000 supporters to “re-found Bolivia” and end “the colonial state”—the division between native Indians and the mainly European-descended settlers—that has ruled since Bolivia’s independence from Spain in 1824.
Morales started the polls six months ago with just 12% voter support but scored more than 51% in the election, according to exit polls.
But he has detractors in the protest movement.
Felipe Quispe, an indigenous Aymara leader and one-time classmate, said that Morales was not up to the president’s job.
And if he does not nationalise the oil and gas industry “we indigenous will throw him out with even more anger”, Quispe said.
The United States has also closely watched the election.
Morales has said he is willing to speak to US officials.
“Dialogue is always open, but we need diplomatic relations, not submission or subordination,” he said.
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