Bolivia's Morales ends homecoming tour with rally

Cochabamba (Bolivia) (AFP) –

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Thousands of supporters of Bolivia's ex-president Evo Morales crowded into his political stronghold Wednesday for a climactic rally to mark his triumphant return to his homeland.

Morales was due to arrive in Chimore, in the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing region, at the head of a cavalcade of vehicles that has accompanied him on a 600-mile (1,000 kilometer) homecoming tour since crossing the border from Argentina on Monday.

The rally has special significance for Morales, who fled Chimore a year ago for exile -- initially in Mexico, then in Argentina -- having lost the support of the armed forces amid violent protests against his re-election to an unconstitutional fourth term.

"Shows of affection demand our commitment and loyalty to the most humble people. We will not let them down," Morales said during the journey.

The former leader will be joined in Chimore by new President Luis Arce, his successor as head of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party.

Former economy minister Arce won the re-run of the annulled election last month and was inaugurated on Sunday.

So far Arce and his ministers have kept their distance from Morales, who though popular, remains a divisive figure in Bolivia.

Many Bolivians believe his return risks derailing the new president's stated intention to unite the country after a year of rule by a right-wing interim governmet.

The ex-president has repeatedly said he will not engage in politics, though his critics remain skeptical.

- 'Evo is like us' -

Thousands of peasant farmers and miners, almost all of them indigenous, have flocked to towns and villages on the journey to greet their returning hero, dancing to the music of brass bands and waving the multi-colored indigenous whipala flag.

Most of them repeated the same mantra: "Evo is like us."

"Here are his people, he knows how to listen to the indigenous people," said Elizabeth Arcaide, a 43-year-old woman who wiped away tears during a rally in Orinoco, where hundreds turned out at a local football ground under a scorching sun to welcome the "son of the people."

Bolivia has one of the largest indigenous populations of any Latin American country, some 41 percent of its 11.5 million people.

In the village of Isallave, near Orinoca, Morales made an emotional visit to the adobe, thatched-roof house where he was born 61 years ago.

"One must always return to one's roots to strengthen one's ajayu (soul)," he said.

In nearby Orinoca, where he grew up, stands the Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution, a gigantic modern construction that pays homage to the nearly 14 years he spent in power.

The contrast with its humble surroundings is stark, as goats and chickens roam the criss-crossed streets.

Political analyst Carlos Cordero downplayed the significance of the ex-president's return.

"For supporters of Evo Morales it is important news, for the rest of the country, where he has many detractors, it's anecdotal."

"Evo Morales is an historic leader, but politics is now in the hands of Luis Arce. Evo Morales will have to retrain himself in order to return to power."