Morales's rise inspires Andean groups

Indigenous organizations in the region hope to gain a boost from Evo Morales's victory in Bolivia.

The day before Bolivia's president-elect Evo Morales dons the presidential sash in front of more than a dozen visiting heads of state Sunday, he will stand barefoot and wear a traditional woven poncho at the Tiahuanaco ruins near the shores of Lake Titicaca, paying homage to mother earth and father sun in an ancient indigenous ceremony.

The pre-inaugural ceremony is fitting for Mr. Morales, who is set to become the country's first indigenous president since Bolivia gained independence 180 years ago. A native Aymara, Morales won nearly 54 percent of the votes in the December presidential election, and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party captured half of the seats in both the lower and upper houses of Congress. His first cabinet announcement Wednesday was to scrap Bolivia's ministry for indigenous people, saying it is a form of discrimination against the country's indigenous majority.

"This is a victory for indigenous people and for all Bolivians who have been marginalized and looked down upon for centuries," Leonidas Zurita, head of the National Federation of Peasant Women and a MAS leader, said in a telephone interview.

Morales's overwhelming victory is being touted as a major step forward for native populations throughout the Andean region. Indigenous organizations here are hoping that success will lead to increased possibilities for them to flex their political muscles in the region's yearlong electoral cycle that got under way in Chile in early December and will end nearly a year later in Ecuador.

"Indigenous people are beginning to recognize that we are not second-class citizens, that we too can have political power. We are seeing a change," says Hebert Chacón, the mayor of Páez, Venezuela, who has been in office since last year.

Indigenous groups from Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela have been taking strides separately to organize for some time. This October they decided to join forces and create a regional group, the Andean Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations, which will allow them to swap experiences on organizing and making forays into electoral politics.

Luis Vittor, the group's technical secretary, said the idea is not to create some sort of pan-Andean political party, but to allow the different organizations an opportunity to dialogue about common problems and solutions.

"Our goal is to increase the participation of indigenous peoples in decisions affecting them and their countries. This can be through direct political participation, but it can also be through lobbying for quotas or other forms of representation," he says.

Venezuela and Colombia reserve seats in their legislatures for indigenous peoples, and Chilean President-elect Michelle Bachelet has promised to push for constitutional changes that recognize indigenous cultures and ratify international agreements guaranteeing indigenous rights.

The first test of the impact of Morales's rise to power may be seen in Peru, where general elections will be held in less than three months.

Ollanta Humala, of mixed European and indigenous stock, is running first in many polls. A former lieutenant colonel, he shares a number of planks with Morales. Mr. Humala and Morales are both squarely on the left of the political spectrum and are staunchly nationalistic when it comes to natural resources and strategic industries, which they believe should managed by the state. They also look to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as a model.

Humala, however, has to convince Peru's indigenous people, who make up 45 percent of the country 26.2 million people that he will represent them. He is ahead in many regions with high indigenous populations, but these are the same areas that voted for current President Alejandro Toledo, Peru's first democratically elected president of indigenous descent, in 2001 and he let them down.

Morales's win could also have a major impact in Ecuador - where the indigenous movement has made important gains and also suffered some of the most spectacular setbacks - when voters go to the polls in November.

Leaders of the country's indigenous party, Pachakutik, are still debating whether they should run a candidate from their ranks or join a coalition as in the past three elections, and might be inspired by Morales to run a candidate from their ranks rather than join a coalition.

In the meantime, Ecuador's Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, called Wednesday for a nationwide uprising to protest the government's negotiations of a free-trade agreement with the United States.

Jaime Andrade, who heads the regional Development Fund for Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean, said he is optimistic about clout being earned by indigenous peoples.

"That indigenous people are beginning to take a role in politics and that an indigenous person can be elected president has a positive impact," said Mr. Andrade.

He cautioned, however, that winning an election is only the first part, because each victory also brings with it new expectations for change.

Mr. Vittor said his new region-wide organization recognizes this.

"The idea behind the coordinating committee is not to promise immediate solutions to problems, but create a space where we can develop leverage," he said, emphasizing the need for gradual change. "We can't go 100 miles an hour, because we'll go right past our people who we want to represent."

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