Image: Evo Morales
Martin Bernetti  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Evo Morales waves from the Presidential Palace balcony on Sunday in La Paz, Bolivia.
updated 1/22/2006 4:16:03 PM ET 2006-01-22T21:16:03

Leftist coca grower Evo Morales, a fierce critic of U.S. policies who helped topple two of his predecessors in deadly street uprisings against Bolivia’s ruling elite, was inaugurated Sunday as the nation’s first Indian president.

The former llama herder and leader of Bolivia’s coca growers union raised his fist in a leftist salute just before he swore to uphold the constitution during the ceremony in the ornate Legislative Palace.

Morales wept and bowed after he was presented with the yellow, red and green presidential sash — the colors of the Bolivian flag. Outside, tens of thousands of people, led by brightly dressed Indians, cheered and blew on cow horns as fireworks crackled overhead.

They then sang the national anthem amid shouts of “Evo! Evo!” in support of Morales, a farmer’s son who has promised to lift one of Latin America’s poorest countries out of the misery it has endured since the 16th-century Spanish conquest.

End of Indian repression
Morales said his election marks the beginning of the end to hundreds of years of discrimination and repression of Bolivia’s Indian majority.

“I wish to tell you, my Indian brothers, that the 500-year indigenous and popular campaign of resistance has not been in vain,” Morales declared.

He also said he would “change history” but “without vengeance,” and his government would serve all sectors of Bolivian society.

Tieless in character with his informal style, the former opposition leader vowed that his leftist Movement Toward Socialism would be stubbornly independent, avoiding 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.

As part of a more nationalistic and leftist agenda, he also said he would move ahead with plans to nationalize Bolivia’s abundant natural gas reserves and convoke a constitutional assembly later this year to answer Indian demands for a greater share of power in society.

Coca production may cause strains
A potentially prickly subject in U.S. relations with Bolivia is the production of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Poor Bolivians traditionally chew the leaf to combat hunger and the effects of altitude.

Morales has said he wants to expand the acreage allotted for coca while cracking down on the international cartels that traffic the plant.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, the leading Bush administration official here, has said that increased cultivation, even for local consumption, could provide an opening for traffickers to expand smuggling operations.

Shannon said the coca issue did not come up when he met with Morales on Saturday. He also said he wished “the new, democratically elected government success.”

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