Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Evo Morales assumes presidency

PROMISES Bolivia's new leftist president vowed to increase state control on the country's vast natural resources, but also pledged to maintain `friendly' US ties

AP , LA PAZ

Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales, left, dressed in traditional clothes, is given an indigenous ceremonial staff from an Amauta-Aymara wise man during the performance of an ancient ritual in the Akapana site of the sacred place of Tiwanaku on Saturday, one day before his swearing-in as the first indigenous president of the country.

PHOTO: AFP

Sworn in yesterday as Bolivia's first Indian president, Evo Morales promised to undo the Andean nation's colonial past, increase state control of its vast natural resources and ease poverty in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries.

While his fiery leftist views and close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have raised eyebrows in Washington, Morales has recently toned down his rhetoric, promising to try to have friendly relations with the US.

After attacking US-style capitalism at a spiritual ceremony at ancient pre-Inca ruins outside La Paz on Saturday, the Aymara Indian leader and coca grower later met with Thomas Shannon, the US Assistant Secretary of State and top Bush administration official attending the inauguration.

"We wish the new, democratically elected government success. The United States is going to support the new government,'' Shannon said following talks held at the kitchen table in Morales' La Paz apartment.

Although he offered no specifics on what was discussed, Shannon later told the AP "we will see what this new government is prepared to do.''

But clouds still loomed over the future of US-Bolivian relations.

Just hours before the meeting, Morales declared his affinity with Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and compared his own landslide win in December elections to the Cuban revolution that Guevara fought for -- underlining his commitment to the principles he espoused as a street activist opposed to free-market policies and US-led anti-drug efforts in Bolivia.

"We need the strength of the people to bend the hand of the empire," Morales said on Saturday, referring to the US.

"We're convinced that concentrating capital in few hands is no solution for humanity and it's no solution for the poor of the world," he said during an Indian ceremony at the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku.

On Saturday, Morales visited Tiwanaku, 65km outside of La Paz, to seek guidance from the Andean gods and receive blessing from Aymara priests in front of tens of thousands of supporters in a preinaugural ceremony.

He set a target date of July 2 for electing members of a Bolivian constituent assembly which he hopes will benefit the country's Indian majority, reverse free-market policies and increase state control of natural resources like natural gas, tin and silver.

Bolivia is South America's poorest country, with per capita gross domestic product of US$950, despite having the second largest natural gas reserves in Latin America after Venezuela.

As Bolivians prepared for Morales' inauguration, the highway leading from the airport swarmed with workers hanging Bolivian flags, filling potholes, covering graffiti and repainting lanes.

Soldiers toting automatic weapons guarded luxury hotels for arriving leaders, including the presidents of Ecuador, Colombia and Spain's crown prince. Castro was sending his vice president to the swearing-in.

On Saturday, Venezuela's Chavez arrived for the inauguration and warmly embraced Morales, calling him an "emissary sent by God."

"Chavez, yes! Yankees, No!" some 200 Bolivian supporters shouted as Venezuela's leftist president swept across La Paz in a motorcade en route to his hotel.

Morales rose to power as a leader of the coca leaf farmers and spent years in an often violent struggle sagainst Washington-backed coca eradication programs aimed at controlling the leaf that can be made into cocaine.

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