By Eduardo Garcia

RIBERALTA, Bolivia, Sept 16 (Reuters) – Bolivian President Evo Morales says wealthy elites are trying to block his leftist reforms because they do not like having an Indian leading the South American country.

Less than two years since becoming Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, Morales is facing fierce opposition from rightist rivals and sometimes-violent street protests have flared in the poor nation in recent months.

Morales, who herded llamas in the Andes as a boy before farming coca, told Reuters in an interview discrimination persisted against the indigenous majority in Bolivia.

“What worries me most are the actions of the oligarchy, the dirty war. Discrimination continues,” he said late on Saturday on a military plane from the Amazon town of Riberalta.

“In some cities, groups of people talk about wearing out the Indian, knocking the Indian out … They cannot accept that an Indian is governing well,” said Morales, dressed in jeans.

Recent polls indicate that Morales has a popularity rating of about 57 percent, but the protests have put a strain on his government and stalled his effort to reform the constitution to empower indigenous Bolivians.

He accuses the rightist opposition and civic leaders of orchestrating the protests in eastern regions in a bid to derail the assembly and weaken him. Some Morales critics in the east say he wants to impose an Indian government.

Bolivia can be roughly divided along ethnic lines, with the eastern lowlands home to European descendants and indigenous peoples concentrated in the Andean west.  

 

Morales has formed close ties with fellow regional leftists Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro since he took office in January 2006 on pledges to turn South America’s poorest country into a prosperous, more inclusive nation.

“I don’t have recent news (on Castro’s health) … with such an operation and at his advanced age, it’ll take him time to recover,” Morales said of Castro, who has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006.

He said the last time he spoke with Castro was when he visited Cuba on June 6.

Despite the deadlock at the constitutional assembly rewriting Bolivia’s Magna Carta, Morales said the opposition only refused to negotiate on one ruling party proposal: allowing leaders to seek re-election.

He said he might consider running for president after his five-year term expires in 2011, but only if the people want that.

“In street rallies, I’ve heard some people saying ‘Evo President for 100 years,’ that’s demagogic … (but) if people want me to run for president again, I will,” he said.

“If they want me to go tomorrow … I’d find myself a woman and I’d go back to my coca land plot,” said a weary-looking Morales, a 47-year-old bachelor, adding that he sometimes feels “lonely” and “tired” in power.

In the jungle town of Riberalta, close to the Brazilian border, he was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters.

“You’ve shown us love and a lot of interest in this faraway town … now we feel we’re being taken into account,” Maria Candida Navarro, from a residents’ organization, told Morales after he opened a bridge and a school.

Morales said such projects were the best way for his government to challenge the opposition. “What you’ve seen today, what we’re going to do tomorrow, and what we’re going to do every week. Work, work, work … Permanent contact with people,” he said.

Morales has more money flowing into state coffers since he nationalized the vital natural gas industry last year and he said education and health spending was his priority.

“The grass roots movements are starting to realize I can’t undo the wrongs of 20 years of free-market policies in one-and-a-half years,” he said. “I need time, I’ve barely started.”

in Reuters