Ceremony Precedes Bolivian President's Inauguration

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President-elect Evo Morales officially becomes Bolivia's first indigenous president. To mark the event, a symbolic inauguration ceremony was held Saturday at the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiwanaku, 12,500 feet above sea level. Aymara Indians performed a ritual ceremony and Indians from all over Bolivia celebrated.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In La Paz, Bolivia today, President-elect Evo Morales takes the oath of office to become the first President of a land locked nation where over 60 percent of the population is Indian. But Bolivia's Indian population got a jump on the festivities by holding their own ritual inauguration yesterday. They named Morales Supreme Indian Leader at Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan archaeological site.

Sarah Bush reports.

SARAH BUSH reporting:

More than 12,000 feet above sea level on the windswept Andean plains, 30,000 Indians await the arrival of Evo Morales. Weathered hands wave rainbow-colored Indian nation flags. From on top of a hill overlooking the ruins dating back 1,500 years, Bolivia's next president appears. Morales is dressed in a ceremonial white robe, customarily worn by Aymara priests.

Metchsedes Ramirez(ph) explains in Ketchua, the indigenous language, that he's performing a ritual honoring the Earth mother.

Mr. METCHISEDES RAMIREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BUSH: Morales holds an urn wafting sweet smelling smoke and descends barefoot to the ceremonial temple. He's presented with a scepter and symbolically becomes the highest Indian leader.

President-elect EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

BUSH: From this sacred place, Ketchua Aymara Guarani brothers and sisters, Morales says, we can begin to govern honestly and responsibly and to change the economic situation of the Bolivian people.

Morales, an Aymara descendant, rose from humble beginnings to be leader of the coca growers' federation in the 1980s. Since 2003, he's been at the forefront of social resistance movements that have ousted two presidents. In December, Morales' Movement to Socialism party won almost 54 percent of the popular vote. That's the largest mandate in over 50 years.

Johnny Ola Munisakro (ph), wearing a big green mask and yellow suit, says he's attending the inauguration to perform an ancestral dance in celebration.

Mr. JOHNNY OLA MUNISAKRO (Bolivian): (Foreign language spoken)

BUSH: Munisakro says now neo-liberalism has fallen and a new era has begun. Indians will also be part of the government. He says indigenous people are looking forward to taking back control of Bolivia's gas reserves, a top item on Morales' agenda.

At issue has been the expropriation of the country's natural resources to multinational corporations. Despite sitting on the second largest natural gas reserve in the Western hemisphere, Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America. As in so much of the region, there's a stark divide between the rich and the poor.

Julio Salazar, Secretary General of the coca growers federation, says uprisings that have wracked Bolivia for the past five years will now end.

Mr. JULIO SALAZAR (Secretary General, Coca Growers' Federation): (Through translator) Before, all of our uprisings were against the government, the economic model, against imperialism. But now, we are the government.

BUSH: But Morales must placate many interests, including concerns in the Bush administration. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has poured millions of dollars into Bolivia to end illicit coca cultivation. Morales vows to roll back eradication efforts in Bolivia and de-criminalize the coca leaf, though he's backing a zero cocaine policy.

Morales says friendships with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have also strained ties with the United States.

Morales' spokesperson Alex Contreras says on the campaign trail, Morales pronounced himself the people's hope and the U.S's nightmare.

Mr. ALEX CONTRERAS (Spokesperson of Evo Morales): (Through translator) That's because lately, U.S. diplomacy has failed to respect the sovereignty and dignity, not only of Bolivia, but also of other nations. It's been the politics of imposition.

BUSH: But lately, Morales had toned down his fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric. And on Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, David Greenlee, in a conciliatory comment, said the two countries had turned a page in their relationship.

For now, the U.S. is far from the minds of Bolivia's indigenous people. Surrounded by the ruins of a once mighty empire, Bolivia's Indians enjoy the opportunity to celebrate the return to power of one of their own.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Bush.

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