LA PAZ – President Evo Morales accepted re-election as leader of Bolivia’s largest coca farmers union Tuesday, just days after he said 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 “coca-leros,” or coca farmers, from the Chapare region. ‘’It’s a way to not separate from the people, because the people don’t want that.”
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.
“Our leader has been re-elected in strict compliance with the regulations that say the president of the six (coca) federations can be re-elected as many times as necessary,” union member Julio Salazar said.
But opposition politicians have criticized Morales’ continued in-volvement.
“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 1,600 square meters (0.4 acres) of coca per family in Chapare, as established by a deal struck under the government of former President Carlos Mesa. AP