Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bolivian Coca Farmers Re-Elect Morales: Tue Feb 14, 2006

By FIONA SMITH, Associated Press Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia - President Evo Morales accepted re-election as leader of Bolivia's largest coca farmers union Tuesday, despite saying earlier he would step down from the post.

Morales, who was inaugurated as Bolivia's first Indian president three weeks ago, traveled to the central city of Cochabamba to thank the union members and defend his decision to remain their leader in the face of "enemies (who) have made negative comments."

"A president of Bolivia can also be a union leader, and that's our difference from the traditional parties," Morales told a gathering of "cocaleros," or coca farmers, from the Chapare region.

Morales rose to political power after joining the union in the 1980s, later leading the sometimes-violent struggle against Washington-backed coca eradication policies.

On Monday, the cocaleros picked him to fill the union's top job for the 10th year running.

Opposition politicians have criticized Morales' continued involvement.

"The president is making a mistake that could damage the image of the country," said Senator Tito Hoz de Villa. "He's no longer a union leader, but president of all Bolivians."

Morales announced his decision to step down in a speech Saturday before the opening session of the union gathering. He also asked the coca growers to respect a 2004 agreement that limited cultivation of the leaf.

Morales has guaranteed the farmers will be allowed to grow just under half an acre of coca per family in Chapare, as established by a deal struck under the government of former president Carlos Mesa.

Coca is the basic ingredient of cocaine, but it also has traditional religious and medical uses in Bolivia.
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