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Bolivia looks back on Morales' first year

LA PAZ, Bolivia - On Jan. 22, Evo Morales delivered a speech to the Bolivian Congress on the anniversary of his first year in office.

''Some thought we would be a government without future,'' he said. ''Others asked how a campesino could end up being president.''

While Morales spoke, and some La Paz residents danced in the streets to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of the first indigenous president in a country that is 65 percent indigenous, Bolivians of all political stripes looked back on his challenging first year.

Morales' anniversary came just 11 days after street battles in Cochabamba in which two people were killed. Campesinos and coca growers took to the streets to demand the ouster of Mayor Manfred Villes Reyes, an opponent of Morales who supports autonomy for Bolivia's wealthy eastern region. They were met by armed bands of Reyes supporters, mostly from Cochabamba's wealthy and middle classes.

The clash illustrated the polarization between Bolivia's wealthy, non-Indian elite, who have held power in Bolivia for most of its history, and Bolivia's indigenous and working class people, who have found a symbol and a voice in Morales' government they didn't have before.

Commentary on Morales' first year reflected this polarization, with his opponents and much of the media accusing Morales of heightening ''racism'' and confrontation within the country, and his supporters detailing his success at improving the lives of Bolivia's poor, and in promoting the indigenous culture and tradition of the country.

Morales' critics point to the Cochabamba events as well as fatal October clashes between miners in Huanuni as examples of Morales' inability to govern the country.

Walter Guiteras, of the opposition party Podemos, accused Morales of ''totalitarianism'' and of relying too much on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Cuban government.

''Morales is a captive of Aymaran fundamentalism,'' he said in an interview with La Razon, ''and this has put the Eastern region, the middle class, and business people at risk.''

Other analysts disagreed, saying Morales' government contained ''unionist'' and ''indigenist'' forces that were sometimes at odds with each other.

Guiteras, along with other opposition party members, joined with Morales' supporters in congratulating Morales on his nationalization of Bolivia's natural resources, which has pushed state profits from these resources up from $300 million to $1.5 billion.

For Morales supporters like Quechuan political analyst Juvenal Quispe, Morales has begun important steps in distributing economic benefits to the poor, in a country where 64 percent of its people live in poverty.

In his 12 months of office, Morales has reduced the salaries of government officials, including his own; cut energy rates for the poor; raised the salaries of doctors and teachers; instituted literacy programs for 300,000 people; and imported volunteer Cuban doctors who have provided free medical care. He recently announced state medical insurance for young people and the elderly.

In addition to nationalizing Bolivia's natural gas resources, he has broken up the unproductive estates of large landowners and put territory into the collective hands of indigenous campesinos, the descendants of people who were forced to work these lands as slaves for many years.

In his constitutional assembly, Morales has promised to refound Bolivia as a ''multi-ethnic'' state that incorporates its indigenous traditions. His former education minister pushed for educators and civic authorities to speak at least one Native language, and his government has recognized the right of indigenous communities to practice community justice.

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For some indigenous activists, Morales and his constitution have not gone far enough.

''Currently the political constitution of the Bolivian state says it is multi-ethnic,'' concluded a commission of the Continental Indigenous Encounter in October, held in La Paz. ''We are not ethnicities, we are Nations. ... We want a Pluri-national state.''

The commission went on to state that Morales had not included enough indigenous representation in the current constitutional assembly, and urged a separate, indigenous constitutional assembly.

For Quispe, Morales' greatest achievement has been in shifting the identity of Bolivia's indigenous people.

''Evo Morales, for the virtues, the dreams and the identity that he incarnates, woke up in the stigmatized indigenous people the pride and the will to be authentic,'' he wrote in a recent e-mail.

''Bolivia has lived, and still lives, a kind of cultural schizophrenia. Always putting down its indigenous identity and dreaming of the North American or European identity. Now, with an indigenous President, this collective pathology is beginning to be healed. Many say, 'If Evo can, why not me?'''

For Quispe, the combative attitude of the wealthier people in the east shows their unwillingness to give up power and privilege.

''The rich don't want to admit that an Indian is teaching them how to govern,'' he said.

However, Quispe agreed with some of Morales' opponents that his governing style had been at times too confrontative.

During the Cochabamba street battles, many in the crowd of campesino demonstrators said they felt the U.S. government was manipulating supporters of Reyes to attack them in an effort to destabilize the country.

Morales has strained relations with the United States with his nationalization of natural resources and his efforts to legalize the coca plant, which the U.S. government claims is threatening its war on drugs.

In January, ''in the framework of dignity and reciprocity,'' he said he would require a visa for the entry of U.S. citizens into Bolivia, since Bolivians need a visa for entry into the United States.

In response to the street battles of Cochabamba, and similar demonstrations in La Paz against mayor Jose Luis Paredes, Morales has proposed a recall ordinance that would allow people to remove unpopular authorities by vote, rather than take to the streets.

On Jan. 25, he replaced seven of his ministers and vowed to work on achieving consensus within the country, a move that was criticized by one former minister, Felix Patsi, who feels a consensual attitude will slow the process of Bolivia's transformation.

Current polls show Morales' popularity at 59 percent, with 35 percent in the eastern regions and more than 80 percent in the largely Aymara district of El Alto in La Paz.