Monday, January 23, 2006

Bolivia: President Morales Begins his Work

A truly historic feeling has overcome the proud nation of Bolivia, with the inauguration of its first indigenous President, Evo Morales yesterday. "We have opened a new chapter in Bolivia, one of peace, justice, tolerance and equality, which joins together Bolivians from the north, south, east and west," says an typical Bolivian editorial (BBC, AFP). Polls show 74% approve of his Presidency.

Morales, of course, is just the latest in a wave of socialist leaders being elected in Latin America as a result of a massive popular backlash against American-led free-market policies, which left the region growing slower and with more poverty and unemployment than ever before.

Despite this, as well as the greater prospects for stability, anti-corruption and anti-poverty work in one of the America's most destitute and volatile regions, here in the US it appears the major themes of Bolivian press coverage will continue to be oil and coca - 2 particularly damaging American addictions, which we apparently feel better blaming on others. Typical reports tell or imply a wholesale nationalization of hydrocarbons and a legalization of non-cocaine coca cultivation, despite notions to the contrary. He has cited an EU study on the legal market for coca as a basis for future planning, and on oil he has called for a study and referendum for possible options, which most believe will follow Venezuela's mixed approach).

In his inauguration speech, Morales blamed the "neo-liberal" economic policies of the past and the "looting of our natural resources" for the poverty that affects about two-thirds of Bolivians, mostly Indians. Morales said at the inauguration he wanted all of Bolivia's natural resources, including the vast natural gas fields, to pass to state hands and asked wealthy nations to write off Bolivia's $3.4 billion foreign debt.

Despite much of the mainstream press calling Morales' new Cabinet full of radicals and militants, the BBC notes its ethnic, gender and ideological balance and their being "welcomed by many elements of Bolivian society." Other reports have noted the "soothing," pragmatic tone of his recent speeches. In the inauguration, Morales repeated his pledge to respect property rights, study trade accords for their benefit to poor people and work with the US to fight drug trafficking. He also promised his administration would treat all sectors of society fairly, without "rancor or vengeance." In symbolic terms, Morales is pledging hard work and prudence from his government. He had his first meeting at 5AM and cut his own salary in half. "I want to ask you personally that this government have zero corruption, zero bureaucracy," Mr Morales said.

"We are here to change history," Morales said, with passion in his voice and tears in his eyes. "This democratic, cultural fight is part of the fight of our ancestors, it is the continuity of the fight of Tupac Katari, it is a continuity of the fight of Che Guevara."


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