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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 January 2006, 13:18 GMT
Latin America's winds of change
Daniel Schweimler
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

An indigenous Indian has been elected president of Bolivia for the first time and the people of Chile have elected their first-ever woman president. With elections looming in several other Latin American countries, Daniel Schweimler senses a change in the air.

Evo Morales (left) with South African leader Thabo Mbeki
I am from the people, I will dress like the people
Evo Morales, Bolivian president-elect
There's a word for it in Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of South America's Andean mountains.

"Pachakutic" means a change in the sun, a movement of the Earth which will bring a new era.

According to ancient beliefs, the last Pachakutic began with the invasion of the Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago and is due to come to an end about now.

They see a new cycle beginning. The end of the "Pachakamac", or the world turned upside down.

Evo Morales, who in his youth herded llamas high in the Bolivian mountains and went on to become a coca leaf farmer, is the first indigenous Indian to serve as his country's president.

This in a country in which more than 60% of the population are Indians, many of them still speaking their original languages, Quechua and Aymara.

He looks different. He wears a stripy red, white and blue alpaca wool jumper, not on his days off but while shaking hands with kings and presidents.

"I am from the people," he says, "I will dress like the people."

New breed of leader

Another new leader who does not wear a tie is Michelle Bachelet, elected last Sunday as Chile's first woman president.

An ex-steel worker, Lula, leads Brazil and Hugo Chavez - a populist former army commander - runs Venezuela.

Another populist former army officer, Ollanta Humala, is running against a conservative woman, Lourdes Flores, in elections in Peru in April.

The era of the conservative middle-aged man in a grey suit, representing the white-skinned landed elite across Latin America appears to be coming to an end.

It comes as a string of politicians who promised much but delivered little were forced from office - often by angry crowds - in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina.

As you drive from the centre of the Bolivian capital, La Paz, to the international airport in El Alto, 4,000 metres above sea level, the air gets thinner and the houses more ramshackle.

Sewage runs down the sides of the streets and there are more women wearing traditional Indian dress, topped with a bowler hat.

'Time of the Indian'

Don Gregorio, an elderly man with a brown, weather-beaten face, is typical of the people in this region - quietly spoken, respectful towards outsiders and not forthcoming with his opinions.

Two of his three grown-up children are working in Argentina, like tens of thousands of Bolivians, since there is work to be had there and the wages are higher.

A Bolivian woman working on her farm
Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in South America

"It's the time of the Indian," said Don Gregorio. "We'll see how it goes but I think things are going to get better."

It is hard to see how conditions could get much worse for many here.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America despite its huge natural gas deposits. Before gas it had tin and before that silver and gold.

A small number of Bolivians and the foreign investors they worked with became very rich. Little of that wealth reached the majority of poor Bolivians.

Some in Washington and many foreign investors are wary of the change.

President Evo Morales has said customers will have to pay more for Bolivia's gas.

Peaceful change

The US critics see a new axis of evil forming in their own backyard: Fidel Castro in Cuba, Venezuela's Chavez and Evo Morales, none of them wearing ties, and fomenting discontent in the region.

Evo Morales, however, on his recent world tour has been speaking of peaceful change.

"Bolivians have chosen the ballot box, not the bullet," he said.

Michelle Bachelet
Chile's President Bachelet says she wants to build a more equal society
The 1980s saw the introduction of US-inspired, neo-liberalist free market policies across Latin America.

Many economists hailed them as a success in Chile but they were perceived as a failure elsewhere, most notably in Argentina where the economy collapsed four years ago.

In Bolivia, unemployment tripled and infant mortality rose.

"The modernity they promised only came to the banks, the telecommunications industry and the petrol companies," said one economist.

Now the voters seem to be demanding something new. Half the ministers in Michelle Bachelet's new cabinet in Chile will be female.

One woman I spoke to at the celebrations outside Dr Bachelet's campaign headquarters told me: "She listens to what the people say. We can believe in her. Women listen better than men."

Sceptical voices

That is not to say that everyone is happy with the change.

As I grabbed a sandwich before catching a plane out of Santiago airport, the woman next to me said goodbye to the waiter.

"Good luck with your new woman president," she said.

"We'll give her a try," he replied. "And if she fails, it's back to the men," he added once she was out of earshot.

In what is still a macho region Michelle Bachelet is seen by many as a woman first and a politician second.

If she does fail, they will say women cannot govern.

The same will apply to Evo Morales on whom the hopes of the country's indigenous and poor people rest.

But failure is not on the agenda at the moment as a new wave of optimism sweeps across a region desperate for change and keen to try something new.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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