The Miami Herald
Sun, Jan. 22, 2006

New president attends Indian cleansing ritual

Bolivia's new leader Evo Morales was blessed and cleansed in an Indian traditional ceremony as he prepares to take office.

Knight Ridder News Service

TIAHUANACO, Bolivia - With drums thundering and multicolored flags waving, thousands of indigenous people from around the world gathered on the barren Bolivian highlands Saturday to cleanse and bless this Andean country's first indigenous president, leftist Evo Morales, who takes office today.

The ceremony, held on the site of ancient ruins more than 13,000 feet in elevation, drew indigenous leaders from as far as the Philippines and Mexico. Many praised the 46-year-old Aymara Indian as a hero for native people around the world.

''We think it's incredible he has been elected president,'' said Marcos Matías Alonso, a leader of the Nahuas in central Mexico. ``We have a lot of confidence, but there are also lots of dangers. There are forces that want to block him, and he needs continued support.''

Clearly moved by the affection, Morales -- wearing a red and gold tunic with white flowers around his neck -- promised to lead a global fight on the part of indigenous people against ''colonial'' exploitation by ''the empire,'' a term he regularly uses to refer to the United States.

Nonetheless, he refrained from the blistering attacks against U.S. policy in Latin America that have won him popularity at home and notoriety abroad. Morales has worried U.S. officials with his close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has clashed with the Bush administration, and his support for growers of coca leaf, the main ingredient in cocaine.

''We have an obligation and a duty to create a consciousness in the entire world to help the majorities and the poor of the world to take control of their countries and change the economic situations in their countries,'' Morales said.

Looking forward to a planned rewriting of Bolivia's constitution, Morales said he would use the process to fight for more indigenous involvement in government.

The longtime coca grower leader captured Bolivia's presidency last month with 53.74 percent of the vote, the first majority won by a presidential candidate since the return of democracy in 1982 to this impoverished country of 8.9 million people. His Movement Toward Socialism party also won a majority in the country's house of deputies and increased its presence in the senate.

Several indigenous Bolivians said Saturday they had high hopes that Morales' new government could reverse fortunes for Bolivia's indigenous majority. ''This was a dream many of us have had,'' said Estel Pablo Mena, a Quechua farmer from the highland town of Challapata. ``Evo came from us. He took care of llamas like we do. We who suffered voted for him, and we need his help in the countryside.''

Morales highlighted those roots Saturday by taking part in the indigenous rite before his official inauguration planned in La Paz today.