Evo Morales, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a critic of the United States, appeared poised to get the most votes for Bolivia's presidency on Sunday. However, Congress will probably choose the winner because no candidate is expected to garner a majority.While fireworks boomed and thousands of supporters cheered, presidential front-runner Evo Morales shyly took the stage Wednesday night as if he were embarrassed by all the spectacle around him.
But there was nothing timid about the 46-year-old coca farmer's speech as he unleashed the kind of rhetoric that has made him one of Latin America's most divisive figures and a possible new thorn in Washington's side along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chбvez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
''The hour has arrived where we liberate ourselves completely,'' Morales said. ``I feel a wave of uprising and rebellion all around Latin America and a growing courage to stop our subjugation at the hands of the North American empire.''
Bolivians will vote Sunday, and recent polls suggest that Morales is running five to eight points ahead of his closest challenger, former President Jorge ''Tuto'' Quiroga. Morales could become Bolivia's first indigenous president in its 180-year history, and mean that Latin America is about to have another government that openly challenges American influence in the region. Morales is a close ally of Chбvez, who's a persistent critic of the Bush administration, and has praised Castro's communist rule.
''Washington feels like things are getting out of hand in Latin America, and Evo is a part of that,'' said Larry Birns, the executive director of the liberal Washington-based research center The Council on Hemispheric Affairs. ``There's a tremendous apprehension in the Bush administration over the alliance Evo Morales would want to strike with Chбvez.''
Morales certainly hasn't tried to hide from controversy, although he largely maintains a humble image, showing up at rallies in tennis shoes and jeans and speaking hesitatingly to the news media.
He has built his campaign on bold promises to nationalize Bolivia's vast natural-gas resources and to legalize the cultivation of the coca leaf, which is the prime ingredient in cocaine.In Argentina last month at a summit of hemispheric leaders, Morales condemned U.S. policies, such as free-trade agreements and open markets, that he said exploited poor Latin America countries.
''We must change this neoliberal policy that has left us only in poverty,'' he said. ``We must stop the looting.' Morales' rhetoric wins him points within his country, especially as Bolivians recoil from two tumultuous years in which disputes over natural gas led to highway blockades and mass protests that ousted two presidents.
Morales, who heads the Movement to Socialism party, led many of those protests and has promised to start more if he feels he was cheated out of the presidency.Quiroga has accused his rival of trying to scare votes out of Bolivians. Morales' supporters admit that they would expect protesters to oust a Quiroga government.
''Evo is the only way to resolve this crisis, and it's the only way for Bolivia to change the economic policies that have left us only poorer,'' said Julio Martelo, who heard Morales speak in Santa Cruz. ``We desperately need a new face in this country, someone who doesn't come from the same elite.'
Morales' personal story has been a political asset in a country that regularly ranks as the poorest in South America, where more than 60 percent of the people live in poverty and 70 percent are indigenous. A Morales presidency would break Bolivia's tradition of being led by Caucasian heads of state who hail from the country's elite.
Born to peasants from a mining region in western Bolivia, Morales spent much of his childhood traveling with his family around the country as his parents looked for work. After high school and compulsory military service, he settled in the tropical flatlands of the Chapare, where he farmed coca leaves and became a leader in a coca growers union.
Under his command during the late 1990s, unions in the Chapare violently opposed Bolivian government efforts to eradicate the crop. It is legal for Bolivians to grow and chew the coca leaf, but U.S. officials say that most of the coca grown in Bolivia ends up as illegal cocaine, reports Miami Herald. I.L.