Bolivia appears to have elected its first-ever indigenous president. Release of final, official results has been slow. Nevertheless, Bolivia's caretaker government says it is preparing to transfer power to Evo Morales, a socialist admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro and a grower of coca leaf, the raw material used to make cocaine. Mr. Morales has tenaciously defended the growing of coca as a legitimate enterprise, and often railed against what he calls U.S. subjugation of his nation. Reaction from the Bush administration is polite, but cautious.
Backers of Evo Morales continue to celebrate what is overwhelmingly seen as an historic election, boosting an Aymara Indian who never completed high school to executive power in the majority-indigenous Andean nation, the poorest in South America. As two other presidential candidates conceded defeat Monday, people took to the streets to proclaim the dawn of a new era that they hoped would erase decades of corruption.
Among those celebrating was Cochabamba resident Facunda Javier.
"We have won and now we are going to change the country," she said. "The people have come to power!"
Cochabamba University analyst and professor Teresa Polo says Bolivians voted for change.
"This important percentage of votes is due to the fact that the people are tired of the traditional [political] parties and the system that has governed for so many years," she explained.
At the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, a non-partisan public policy group, director Peter Hakim says Evo Morales' popular appeal in Bolivia is no mystery. He says, at long last, Bolivia's substantial indigenous majority will be ruled by one of their own.
"The fact that this has taken so long suggests the different levels of influence that those with a European background and those with indigenous backgrounds have in Bolivia," he said. "It should not have taken this long to have an indigenous president in a country that is 80 percent of Indian background."
In addition, Mr. Hakim says Evo Morales' message resonated strongly with the Bolivian electorate. Mr. Morales has pledged greater state control over the country's large natural gas reserves, and a more equal distribution of gas revenues. In addition, he has defended Bolivia's centuries-old practice of cultivating coca leaf, a mainstay for a significant portion of the country's large rural population. Speaking with reporters recently, Mr. Morales sought to draw a distinction between drug trafficking, which he said he does not condone, and limited growing of coca, which, in its natural form, is commonly chewed in Bolivia as a mild stimulant.
"We are going to mount an effective fight against drug trafficking," said Mr. Morales. "Drug trafficking is not part of the Bolivian culture and has nothing to do with the Quechua culture. If the fight against drug trafficking is a false pretext for the United States to install military bases [in Bolivia], that is something we do not accept. Here the so-called [U.S. drug] certification program has not produced any solutions. What we have experienced is blackmail on the part of the U.S. government."
Mr. Morales was also recently asked his thoughts about Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
"As a political leader, I respect Fidel greatly," he said. "He is a comrade and a brother. I have heard constant denunciations [by the United States] of the government of Chavez. But he is another comrade, another brother in the fight to build a great nation."
But are Evo Morales' words mostly campaign rhetoric, or do they reflect true intent? Peter Hakim says it is too early to tell.
"What we do not know is how he will govern. There is a big difference between a candidate and a president," said Mr. Hakim.
In Washington, the Bush administration seems to be taking a wait and see approach. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the United States congratulates Bolivia on a successful election and the country's commitment to the democratic process. He said the United States would work constructively with Bolivia's new government, but added this.
"The behavior of the new government will determine the course of our relationship," he said. "It is important that the new government govern in a democratic way, and we will look to them to see what kind of cooperation they want to [have] on economic issues, but their behavior will determine the course of the relationship."
The Inter-American Dialogue's Peter Hakim says it would make little sense for Washington to shun Evo Morales.
"We might not like him, we have said that in the past we did not like him, we have made it clear this time that we do not like his attitudes and his policies. But the measure of democracy is the ballot box," added Mr. Hakim, "And we ought to do what we can to find common ground, and we ought to find ways that we can work with him."
Mr. Hakim points out that, while Mr. Morales speaks warmly of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, nations like Brazil and Argentina have much larger commercial and energy ties with Bolivia than do Cuba and Venezuela. He says Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva, a left-of-center leader with whom the United States has a productive working relationship, could prove to be a moderating influence on Mr. Morales in the years to come.