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Bolivia's New President Inspires Region's Indigenous Leaders


For the first time, Bolivia has an indigenous president. Native American leaders throughout Latin America say Sunday's inauguration of Evo Morales was a source of pride and joy. Indigenous political participation has grown markedly in several Latin American nations in recent years, a trend that analysts say will likely continue.

In his inaugural address, President Morales made a point to thank the non-indigenous Bolivians who had supported his bid for office. He said he felt proud of the city-dwellers, businessmen, intellectuals and others who had voted for him, and expressed hope that the feeling of pride was mutual.

"I invite you all to feel proud of the indigenous people, who are the moral reserve of humanity," he said.

The inaugural festivities drew indigenous leaders from throughout the hemisphere, including Luis Macas, president of Ecuador's Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE). Macas says the day was historic and the experience unforgettable.

"It was very, very exciting," he said. "I felt uncontainable emotion to see a brother of ours elevated to this position of such great responsibility. For us it is a matter of pride, but we also see a challenge, a responsibility."

Macas is no stranger to politics. CONAIE has taken part in some of Ecuador's most turbulent protests that prompted the ouster of three presidents over the last nine years.

"The indigenous movement has been questioning the situation facing our countries with regard to poverty, discrimination, and exclusion," he added. "More and more, indigenous people are coming to the conclusion that we must participate more fully, and that with this participation it is possible to change some of the structures of the political system."

But analysts note that it is only in recent years that Native American groups have entered the political fray as such. The director of Princeton University's Latin American studies program, Deborah Yashar, recently addressed an academic conference on Bolivia in Washington.

"In the 20th century, national indigenous movements were, in fact, rare," she said. "It is not that real organizing did not occur among indigenous people, but people used to note that it did not occur along ethnic lines. Prior rural movements mobilized Indians to forge class, partisan, religious, and sometimes even revolutionary identities over and against indigenous ones."

Despite making near-constant references to his indigenous heritage during the campaign, President Morales has sworn to represent all Bolivians regardless of background. As leader of South America's poorest nation, he has pledged to tackle poverty, fight corruption, exert greater state control over natural resources, and decriminalize the small-scale growing of coca, the raw material used to produce cocaine.

Kevin Healy, who specializes on Native American affairs at George Washington University, says indigenous organizers will be watching President Morales concerning one campaign promise in particular: a more equitable distribution of land resources.

"There has been a lot of backsliding on land reform in Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia," he said. "If Bolivia [under Morales] can get some movement on land reform, I think people feel there is a hope that there will be legitimacy to push it more forcefully in their own countries, to see how he [Morales] does it, and then come up with the same strategies."

But Princeton University's Deborah Yashar has a word of caution about the realities of governance.

"One of the biggest challenges for these indigenous movements is to move from movement politics to electoral politics," she added. "When you are doing movement politics, as anyone who is an activist knows, you can articulate a position of principled protest. But when you engage in electoral politics, this is about compromise. That is a very tricky political maneuver, saying that you are protesting and presenting one set of positions, and then having to worry about getting it through the legislature, where you have to engage in alliances."

Bolivia has Latin America's highest-percentage indigenous population, at more than 60 percent. Other nations with large Native American populations include Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico.

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