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Bolivian president ends hunger strike

President Evo Morales ended a five-day hunger strike Tuesday after Bolivia's congress broke a political deadlock, approving a law that lets him run for re-election in December.
LT Bolivia Morales
Bolivian President Evo Morales waves to supporters in La Paz Tuesday after ending a five-day hunger strike.Juan Karita / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Evo Morales ended a five-day hunger strike Tuesday after Bolivia's congress broke a political deadlock, approving a law that lets him run for re-election in December.

Morales, a husky Aymara Indian, looked exhausted and a few pounds thinner as he formally enacted the law before a crowd that chanted "Evo, the people are with you!"

Morales, 49, had spent the weekend reclining on a mattress in the presidential palace, drinking chamomile tea and chewing coca leaves, a mild stimulant that helps suppress the appetite.

"The people should not forget that you need to fight for change. We alone can't guarantee this revolutionary process, but with people power it's possible," the leftist leader said before dawn, flanked by 13 union activists who joined him in the fast.

The legislative compromise, reached at 4 a.m. Tuesday, also reserves seven seats for minority indigenous groups in the 130-seat lower of house of the new congress, and enables Bolivians living abroad to vote, potentially adding about 300,000 new voters, most of whom live in Argentina, to the roughly 4 million eligible domestically.

High tech voting tool
The election law, a follow-up to a new constitution voters overwhelmingly approved in January, also sets stricter standards for voter authentication, introducing a $30 million system of biometric identification, based on voters' fingerprints.

The political opposition insisted on the new standards to prevent fraud, arguing that Morales support rose suspiciously in recent elections — including the August recall Morales won with 57 percent approval — after Venezuela helped the government provide free ID cards.

Morales has not formally announced his candidacy for re-election but has made it clear that his movement has no intention of giving up power.

Bolivia's first indigenous president is seeking to reverse centuries-old inequities in a country long dominated by light-skinned descendants of Europeans where the indigenous minority didn't have the vote until 1952.

Bolivia's two main ethnic groups — the Aymara and Quechua — do not have any special representation in the new two-chamber congress, and leaders of smaller indigenous groups seeking greater control of their traditional lands in Bolivia's turbulent eastern lowlands were upset that they obtained just seven seats in the new congress.

In launching the hunger strike, Morales accused rivals in the opposition-controlled Senate trying of trying to delay Dec. 6 elections for president and a new congress in order to gain political advantage.

To keep up the pressure, Morales, even announced the cancellation of his trip to Trinidad and Tobago for this weekend's summit of 34 hemispheric leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama. The trip is now apparently back on.

His record: 18 days
Morales said his longest previous hunger strike was 18 days, when he used the tactic as a union leader protesting the eradication of coca. The plant is used for cocaine but also is a traditional and sacred staple for Bolivia's highlands Indians.

Though Morales has personally not been accused of wrongdoing, his government has been plagued since February by a corruption scandal in the state-owned YPFB energy company that controls Bolivia's natural gas wealth.

On Tuesday, authorities announced the arrest of a former YPFB president, Guillermo Aruquipa, in an investigation of alleged contracting irregularities. Aruquipa is the second former president of the company to be jailed in the probe.