LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivia's leftist president won passage of an ambitious land redistribution bill and signed it into law to the cheers of impoverished Indian supporters, who stand to benefit from what eventually could be the confiscation of private holdings the size of Nebraska.
Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, is intent on reversing centuries of dominance by a European-descended minority and granting greater power to its poor indigenous majority.
He's already given poor farming communities some 8,500 square miles of government land this year, and hopes the new land reform bill will eventually allow his government to redistribute some 77,000 square miles of unproductive land.
Morales has said the government will not seize productive land, but rather large tracts of Bolivia's sparsely populated east held by a handful of wealthy families.
The president did not say Tuesday exactly how the land reform will proceed.
The government's first step will likely be deciding how to determine whether a parcel of land is productive or not — a process sure to spark heated debate with Bolivian agribusiness leaders who have long fought against Morales' agrarian reform.
Conservative leaders walked out of the Senate last week to block the bill, which was pushed through the Senate on Tuesday in a vote that saw a majority of lawmakers absent.
More than 3,000 Indian demonstrators, many in brightly colored woolen ponchos and straw hats trimmed with neon thread, had descended on the capital, La Paz — some walking for weeks — as opposition lawmakers tried to stall passage of the reforms.
Morales had threatened to circumvent Congress and impose the law by presidential decree if the Senate did not reconvene by Tuesday afternoon.
The bill passed 15-0 with the remainder of the 27 senators absent from vote.
The jubilant protesters turned the presidential palace into a celebratory scene as Morales signed the legislation.
"This is the struggle of our ancestors, the struggle for power and territory," Morales told the crowd. "Now, the change is in our hands."
Despite their long journeys, the marchers were in high spirits.
"We're exhausted, sure, but we are here to reclaim our rights from those speculators who have taken our lands all over the country," said Natalio Izaguirre, who hiked 18 days from his small village near Potosi, about 260 miles south, in sandals made from leather and old car tires.
The marchers poured into the palace Tuesday night red-eyed with fatigue but smiling wide, some playing drums and Andean flutes.
The main hall filled with the faint fragrance of the coca leaves the Indians chewed to stave off hunger — a smell later replaced by the warm, greasy aroma of boxed chicken dinners the government laid out for the marchers.
Morales used a presidential decree in May to nationalize the country's oil and gas fields in an attempt to redistribute wealth in South America's poorest country. At Tuesday night's ceremony, Morales said his government's next project would be to nationalize Bolivia's mining industry.
Some agribusiness leaders from the eastern lowlands have vowed to use force if necessary to defend their farms against government expropriation.
"It is not possible, my friends, to have so much land in so few hands, and so many hands without land," Morales told about 10,000 supporters in a plaza in La Paz before the vote.
The conservative opposition party Podemos holds 13 of the Senate's 27 seats. With help from two senators from minor opposition parties, Podemos previously prevented the body from reaching a 14-seat quorum. Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, has 12 Senate seats.
But Tuesday night, one Podemos senator returned to the chamber to vote for the land reform, joined by assistants filling in for two other opposition senators.
It was not immediately clear whether the assistants' votes would hold up to legal scrutiny.
MAS controls the lower house of Congress, where the land reform bill passed earlier this month in a party-line vote.
The government has publicly accused some of Bolivia's most politically powerful families of large-scale land fraud, adding a layer of personal animosity to an already charged issue.
On Monday, an opposition senator from a prominent landowning family was caught on camera making an obscene gesture to pro-Morales demonstrators heckling him outside the Senate — an act since replayed repeatedly on Bolivian television stations.