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Bolivian Prez vows justice for indigenous people

Evo Morales vowed to end what he called 500 years of abuse of the country's majority race.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2006 15:14 IST
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Evo Morales was set for his first full day at work as Bolivia's first indigenous President on Monday, after vowing to end what he called 500 years of abuse of the country's majority race.

Noting that Bolivian Indians make up 62 per cent of the population, the leftist long-time protest leader, himself an ethnic Aymara, said: "We have been condemned, humiliated ... and never recognized as human beings."

"Five hundred years of campaigning and popular resistance by indigenous people has not been in vain. We are here, and we say that we have achieved power to end the injustice, the inequality and oppression that we have lived under," Morales, a former union leader and coca leaf grower, said during his inauguration on Sunday.

Before 11 presidents and government leaders from Latin America and Europe, Morales focused a nearly two-hour speech on bringing justice to the country's indigenous majority.

The new president held a moment of silence for those who had died in social struggles in Bolivia in recent years, calling them "martyrs".

His fiery speech also mentioned Latin American revolutionaries Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar.

And as his speech dragged on he said: "It's not my custom to talk much. Don't think that I've been infected by Fidel and Chavez." He was referring to Cuban President Fidel Castro -- who was invited but absent -- and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, both known for lengthy, grandiloquent speeches.

Then he made guests laugh by turning to a member of his own party who was nodding off and upbraiding him: "That senator from Cochabamba: don't fall asleep."

Morales rose to prominence as a leader of street protests and roadblocks that helped topple two Bolivian presidents in the past three years. He was elected on December 18, 2005, with almost 54 per cent of the vote.

In a second speech on Sunday to supporters crammed into a city plaza, Morales promised "a government without dead people".

"The blood spilled by our brothers has not been in vain," he said of those who had died in mass street protests over the past years.

"We are not vengeful. We are not going to take revenge on anyone," he told the river of people crowding the square and the main avenue leading to it, who were waving the Bolivian national flag and the multi-color flags representing the country's 37 indigenous groups.

"We are going to show those who massacred us and murdered us how to govern."

Morales was especially referring to the so-called "gas wars", a series of bloody mass protests against the policies of then-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada on use of the country's vast mineral gas resources. The protests forced Sanchez de Lozada to resign in 2003.

He said people "who violated human rights have the obligation to return to Bolivia and go to prison" -- a pointed reference to the ex-president, currently living in the United States, who he claims ordered the death of many protesters.

The new president "represents our indigenous peoples, who have not had power for 500 years", said Luciano Lisidro, 26, who came dressed in a poncho with his wife and baby to hear Morales speak. "We hope for change with Evo."

Morales has said he will increase state control over Bolivia's valuable natural resources in a bid to ease the country's widespread poverty. Sixty four percent of the country's 9.3 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

But he has acknowledged that Bolivia lacks the funds to exploit its resources alone and needs foreign energy partners.

Washington is concerned over Morales' promise to end restrictions on growing coca plants—the core ingredient for cocaine. The US Government has spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate the plant, which is used in traditional ceremonies and medicine in Bolivia and the other Andean countries.

Many foreign leaders also want to see what impact Morales' policies will have in a region where left-wing governments have been broadening their power in one country after another.

Among those at the ceremony were Venezuela's Chavez, a vitriolic critic of Washington, and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a left-wing former union leader.