Morales with more support than any president in Bolivia, results show

Evo Morales, long a dissident and outsider, came to his nation's center of power to prepare to take on Bolivia's presidency following a stunning election victory. Wearing a leather jacket and an open-necked shirt, the veteran street activist was surrounded by the men in suits and ties of the outgoing regime who met with him at the presidential palace Thursday to ease the transition of his Jan. 22 inauguration.

Outgoing caretaker president Eduardo Rodriguez offered gestures of goodwill, saying he would suspend the traditional year-end promotions of military and police officials so that the new president could decide whom to elevate.

Morales, in turn, briefly thanked Rodriguez "for receiving us here in the palace," though the president-elect's Movement Toward Socialism party has been trying to have Rodriguez impeached for allegedly betraying the country by sending missiles to the United States for deactivation. A U.S. State Department spokesman on Thursday said Bolivia requested U.S. help in removing the deteriorating Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles.

Morales also got a touch of good news from abroad: The International Monetary Fund announced Wednesday it would forgive the debt of Bolivia and 18 other countries. Bolivia's Finance Ministry said the IMF debt relief totaled US$222 million (Ђ188 million), about 4.5 percent of the country's foreign debt.

The president-elect said he planned to seek further debt relief from other multinational lending organizations, including the Inter-American Development Bank. "This debt relief will surely help Bolivians," Morales said of the IMF announcement. "Through our transition teams we are going to continue to propose to international organizations that there should be a total pardoning of the foreign debt."

He also immediately had a taste of the sort of protests that he himself has long led as a crusader for the rights of Bolivia's Indians, its poor and its coca farmers.

Interstate bus drivers went on strike Wednesday to protest Rodriguez's decision to delay, until Morales' inauguration, a decision on their demand to drop a decree ordering them give receipts. Officials say they have been evading taxes.

Some workers and businesses in the city of Puerto Suarez, on the border with Brazil, announced a strike protesting another delay. Rodriguez announced a 60-day wait so that Morales could decide whether to seek bids to develop the El Mutun iron mine there. Morales insisted he had not sought the delay, saying, "This bid process should continue. It is important for the country. ... It is important to seek investment." In a meeting with his party and other allies on Wednesday, Morales repeated his campaign call for an assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution to take account of the rights of Indian people.

The idea, he said, is "changing the colonial state and changing our history." With his huge victory margin and the heavy turnout, Morales showed more popular support than any president since democracy was restored in the Andean nation two decades ago.

The president-elect, an Aymara Indian who rose to prominence as a coca growing union leader, had 54 percent with 96 percent of polling places counted on Thursday. Turnout was roughly 85 percent, much higher than in previous Bolivian elections, reports the AP. I.L.

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