COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – The leftist who claimed victory in Bolivia's presidential race on Monday repeated his promise to end a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca plants, saying the crop that provides the raw material for cocaine is part of Bolivian culture.
Evo Morales — himself a coca farmer who played an important role in protests that unseated two governments — also pledged Monday to respect private property, apparently seeking to reassure investors despite his plans to assert state ownership over Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves.
With almost 25 percent of the official votes counted, Morales holds a lead of nearly 47 percent with his conservative rival Jorge Quiroga getting 36 percent, according to the National Electoral Court. On Sunday, Quiroga conceded defeat.
If the results hold, Morales would be the first Indian president in the 180-year history of independent Bolivia and solidify a continental leftward shift.
Morales was congratulated by Venezuela's self-proclaimed revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez and by the more centrist Socialist president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos. No early call came from the United States, and Morales said, "neither was I expecting one."
A State Department spokeswoman, Jan Edmondson, later said in Washington that "while official results have not yet been released, we congratulate Evo Morales on his apparent victory."
She said the U.S. has had good relations with Bolivia in the past and "we're prepared to work to build the same relationship with the next government."
Morales has been an irritant for Washington for years while he has built close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Chavez. A State Department report earlier this year referred to him as an "illegal-coca agitator."
The site of his news conference — the offices of the coca growers union where he rose to political prominence — showed that his apparent victory did not mellow his crusade against U.S. coca-eradication efforts.
"We are betting on an effective fight against narcotrafficking because neither cocaine nor drug trafficking is part of Bolivian culture," Morales said.
He has not said how he will stop illegal drug exports, complaining instead that "the fight against drug trafficking has been a pretext for the U.S. government to install military bases ... and these policies will be revised."
Morales also defended coca as an integral part of Bolivian culture.
"It's not possible that the coca leaf can be legal for Coca Cola and not for us. It's hypocritical," he said.
In Atlanta, Coca-Cola Co. spokeswoman Kirsten Watt declined to say this month whether cocaine-free coca extract is part of the drink's secret recipe. It has been widely reported that cocaine-free extract derived from coca is part of the drink's secret recipe.
Morales also said a governing Movement Toward Socialism party "is not only going to respect, but is going to protect private property," although "vacant, unproductive land" would be turned over to farmers with no land or very little. His comments echoed policies already in place in Venezuela to grant the poor title to land owned by big companies or individuals that has been deemed unproductive by the government.
He said, however, that multinational companies would be paid to help in natural gas exploration and to develop the industry.
If Morales falls short of the clear majority he would need to win outright, Bolivia's congress would decide the winner, but it would be under enormous pressure to choose the clear front-runner.
No candidate in decades has won by such a landslide, and Morales' apparent success marks a turning point in a country traditionally governed by the non-Indian elite. Like most Bolivians, Morales grew up in extreme poverty; only two of his six brothers and sisters survived childhood in Bolivia's bleak Andean highlands.
"The people have dealt him a very strong mandate," said Former Foreign Minister Gustavo Fernandez. He said congressional confirmation would be a "mere formality" if Morales falls short of a straight majority.
Fernandez considers the election a dramatic triumph for South America's leftists: After years of strikes, protests and barricade-building, the people are finally in the position to demand more power from entrenched ruling classes.
"This isn't just about Bolivia; this is happening across Latin America," Fernandez said. "There is now a wave of popular movements sweeping across the region, not only in Bolivia but also in Uruguay, Brazil and other countries."