Clad in a brown tunic and crimson hat adorned with gold, Evo Morales emerged from a stone door in the ancient city of Tiwanaku on January 21 to address the waiting crowd and begin his third term as president of Bolivia.
The Bolivian constitution allows a president just two terms, but the government argued that because he was first elected under the country's previous constitution Morales could seek a third mandate. Buoyed by strong economic growth and continued support from many of the country's grassroots organizations, Morales, the Andean nation's first indigenous president, was reelected with 61 percent of the vote in October 2014. He is now on track to govern until 2020 and become the longest serving leader in Bolivian history.
Hugo Valverde Veizaga, from the eastern city of Santa Cruz, once the political opposition's stronghold, says he came to the ceremony and supports Morales because Bolivia is living a moment of positive change. "Bolivia is doing very well economically, and young people are happy with Evo as president," he says.
Beatriz Aguilar says Morales has supported women's organizations and made efforts to bring projects like schools and healthcare to even Bolivia's most isolated communities. "Evo cares about us because he is our people, and he comes from us," she says of their shared Aymara Indian identity. "He's done so much and is even helping the most distant communities."
Tiwanaku, with its massive stone doors and mysterious carved heads, was at its height between 600 and 1000 A.D., when it was home to thousands of artisans and farmers. As a potent symbol of pre-colonial indigenous architecture and society, it provided a symbolic backdrop as Morales' delivered a speech focused on indigenous struggles and triumphs in the Americas.
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"We have endured more than 500 years of darkness, of hate, racism, discrimination and individualism, since strange men arrived and told us that we had to modernize and civilize ourselves, and taught us their philosophy of death. But to modernize and civilize us first they had to make the Indigenous Peoples of the world disappear, to make our language, our culture and our roots disappear…" Morales said.
The president spoke of the massive population loss and displacement endured by Indigenous Peoples in North, Central and South America.
"Despite so much suffering and massacre, we never gave up, we never accepted defeat; we knew that our victory would come…"
Mercedes Guarachi Salinas and husband Felix Salinas Maldonado: "Pacajes was a forgotten corner. We had no highway, or health or education. But with this plurinational government we have health, education and a highway in Pacajes."
Following Wednesday's ceremony, on Thursday Morales was joined by leaders including Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador in the city of La Paz. Morales addressed a large crowd on Bolivia's prospering economy, poverty reduction, and infrastructure.
Morales pointed to his administration's dramatic increases in the minimum wage, which rose from 440 bolivianos ($64 dollars) in 2005 to 1440 bolivianos ($205 dollars) in 2014, and also vowed to increase access to high school education.
"The education coverage rate is at 99.82 percent in primary education, nearly 100 percent, and I believe that this term we will reach 100 percent at the primary level…" Morales said. "…I'm concerned by the rate of secondary education. We are at 72.15 percent brothers and sisters, and during this term we must reach 100 percent coverage in education at the secondary level."
The president cited reforming the country's floundering judicial system, continuing to reduce poverty, implementing universal health insurance and continuing to expand basic services like potable water and electric as some of his government's main goals for the next five years.
Parts of lowlands indigenous organization the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and indigenous highlands organization the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which marched against a government-planned highway through the National Park and Indigenous Territory Isiboro Secure in 2011 and 2012, were noticeably absent from the festivities. Leaders of these organizations say they were divided and swept aside by the government and its supporters for daring to question government-backed projects that affect indigenous land and consultation rights.
For other people, like Natalio Alavi Mamani, an Aymara Indian from a rural area along the western part of the border shared by Bolivia and Peru, Morales continues to play an important role in the empowerment of Bolivia's Indigenous Peoples.
"We are regaining our identity, our essence. The colonizers told us, 'Indian, your language is no good. Indian, your religion is no good. Indian, your clothes are no good. Indian, your food is no good.' that was oppression. And now the process of decolonization is regaining those things. That's what needs to deepen, and that's what brother Evo is making happen."