Published on Monday, January 23, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
Thousands Throng Streets as Bolivian Leader Sheds Tears but Talks Tough at Inauguration
· President insists he will not eradicate coca trade
· Warning to US as Morales threatens to turn to China
by Jonathan Rugman and Dan Glaister
Bolivia installed its first indigenous president yesterday, Evo Morales, who insisted he would stick by radical drugs and energy policies regardless of US consternation at another South American country turning to the left.
In a pre-inauguration interview, Mr Morales vowed that he would not destroy his country's rapidly expanding coca crop, and threatened to turn to China as a partner if western multinationals refused to cooperate with his plans to nationalise vast gas reserves. "We will fight the drugs traffickers, but there's going to be no coca eradication," said Mr Morales, an Aymara Indian who easily won December presidential elections. "Zero coca programmes haven't solved the drugs problem and they've hurt Bolivia."
His accession to power was celebrated this weekend. A spiritual ceremony at ancient pre-Inca ruins on Saturday gave way to the inauguration during which Mr Morales, 46, raised his fist in a salute, and wept as he was presented with the yellow, red and green presidential sash.
He asked the audience in the Palacio Quemado, seat of the government in La Paz, to observe a minute's silence in honour of the fallen heroes of the social movements, including Che Guevara."Glory to the martyrs of the liberation," he declared at the end of the minute, as shouts of "Evo, Evo" rang around the chamber where an emerging crop of leftwing leaders were in attendance, led by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Visiting dignitaries looked on, but senators from opposition parties mostly sat with arms folded, observing an event that they could not have envisaged: the inauguration of an uneducated Indian as president of Latin America's poorest population and its second-largest reserves of natural gas.
In his first speech, Mr Morales called his election "the end of the colonial and neo-liberal era". He promised an inclusive government, and called on all parties to join him in reform. "The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain," he said. "From 500 years of resistance we pass to another 500 years in power."
The US state department says it is withholding judgement but at the Pentagon Mr Morales' ideas on tackling the cocaine trade - catching the traffickers but growing coca leaves all the same - have raised concerns. After Colombia and Peru, Bolivia is South America's third biggest cocaine supplier. A former coca farmer himself, Mr Morales is wary of alienating his rural power base. Yet unless Bolivia joins the war against drugs, it risks losing the US as its biggest foreign donor with $600m (£340m) in aid on the table. "That's America's problem, not my problem," an apparently unconcerned president told Channel 4 News. "Fighting the drugs trade is an excuse for the US to increase its control over Latin America."
With foreign investment dwindling in the face of Bolivia's lurch leftwards, Mr Morales has been under pressure from the business elite - many of them descendants of the colonial Spanish - to reassure multinationals including BP and British Gas their money is safe. Several firm threaten to sue Bolivia in the face of a big rise in gas extraction fees imposed by the last government. President Morales says he "guarantees investors will recoup their money and make a profit" but will not back down on his pledge to renationalise gas reserves worth a potential $250bn.
His first foreign tour steered clear of Britain and United States but notably took in China. "We are going to guarantee Chinese investment. What's better than state investment? We should have a petro-Americas, a partnership between state enterprise and business. Our land has been looted for 500 years and we are going to assert our right of ownership."
It is an approach that strikes a chord with the millions in Bolivia, where three-quarters of the 8.5-million population are Indian and two-thirds survive on less than $2 a day. Many see in Mr Morales a leader in the mould of Mr Chávez. The Bolivian president has signalled that the Chávez model of tapping energy wealth to fund public spending is one he will follow. Yet despite formidable gas reserves, But Bolivia's revenue does not compare with to Venezuela's oil wealth and the moderating influence of President da Silva of Brazil - a major trading partner - may instil a willingness to compromise.
Pragmatism was in evidence during the interview with Mr Morales. At one point the president tried to terminate our interview early, incensed by questions about Bolivia's cocaine trade. But his desire to be accommodating eventually got the better of him and he carried on talking. America's diplomats must be hoping the same proves true for them.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006