Evo Morales, a 45-year-old Aymara Indian who is the leading candidate in the Dec. 4 presidential elections, spent his youth amid the extreme poverty that afflicts most peasants in this country of 8.5 million people.
One of three children, he was born near the city of Oruro in Bolivia's western highlands. In the 1980s, his family moved to the tropical Chapare region, where they began cultivating coca and other crops.
There, Morales worked his way up the trade union ranks and the federation of coca leaf farmers, which elected him its president in 1993 amid violent struggles against government eradication of their fields. The conflict gave Morales national stature, and he formed alliances with other Indian-led social movements.
He founded his political party, Movement Toward Socialism, in 1995, and was elected to congress two years later. In 2000, Morales was temporarily expelled from the Congress after he was blamed for inciting violent protests in the Chapare.
In 2002, Morales ran for president, finishing a close second to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. He kept his post in congress and helped lead anti-capitalist street protests and road blockades that brought down Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, and his successor, Carlos Mesa, this June. He still operates a coca farm and has pledged to decriminalize the crop and end the U.S.-backed drive to end its cultivation, AP reports.
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