Bolivia's New Leader Takes Office

Evo Morales waves as he leaves Congress after swearing in as Bolivia's new president in La Paz, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006. (AP Photot/Ricardo Mazalan)
Coca grower-turned-President Evo Morales vowed to end discrimination against Bolivia's Indian majority and lift this Andean nation's poor out of misery by tapping profits from abundant national gas reserves, as he was sworn into office on Sunday.

A fierce critic of U.S. policies who helped lead violent street uprisings that toppled two predecessors, Morales raised a clenched fist in a leftist salute to become Bolivia's first Indian president.

He defiantly declared his election marks the beginning of the end to hundreds of years of oppression against Bolivia's impoverished Indian majority, recalling that just decades ago Indians had no place on segregated sidewalks.

"I wish to tell you, my Indian brothers, that the 500-year indigenous and popular campaign of resistance has not been in vain," Morales said, promising his government would move to squelch discrimination dating to the Spanish conquest in 1520.

The 46-year-old son of a poor peasant farmer, Morales vowed in his inaugural speech that his socialist government, now embarking on a five-year term, would reshape Bolivia, as he lashed out at free market economic prescriptions, calling them a failure in attempts to end chronic poverty here.

"The neoliberal economic model has run out," Morales loudly declared after taking up the red, yellow and green sash in the colors of the Bolivian flag. Thousands of Aymara, Quechua and other Indians, many in brightly woolly caps and ponchos, cheered along with leftist sympathizers, miners and students on the cobblestone plaza outside Congress. Firecrackers boomed and some Indians blew long, wailing notes on cow horns.

Morales recalled past decades of harsh discrimination as something akin to apartheid-era South Africa, adding "Bolivia seems like South Africa" when reviewing some of the most violent chapters of race relations.

Tieless in character with his informal style, the former opposition leader vowed his leftist Movement Toward Socialism would be stubbornly independent, steering clear of any outside influences. While he has said his government would welcome warm relations with the United States and other governments, he vowed he would not "submit" to any outside powers.