TIWANAKU, Bolivia – Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales, dressed in a bright red tunic worn only by the most important pre-Inca priests, promised to do away with vestiges of his country's colonial past Saturday in a spiritual ceremony at an ancient temple on the eve of his inauguration.
To roars from the crowd of tens of thousands, Morales — the first Indian to be elected as Bolivia's president and a fierce critic of the U.S. — called his landslide election a victory for indigenous populations around the world, saying it was evidence that poor countries can rise up to challenge richer ones.
"With the unity of the people, we're going to end the colonial state and the neoliberal model," said Morales, who spoke mostly in Spanish but also offered greetings in the Aymara language he grew up speaking as a boy.
Spectators walked for miles to listen to the leftist leader, passing thatched adobe huts and grazing sheep to reach the archaeological remains of the Tiwanaku civilization that flourished around 500 B.C. near the shores of Lake Titicaca, 40 miles from La Paz.
When Morales arrived, they shouted "Viva Evo! Viva Bolivia!" in both Spanish and Aymara, waving rainbow-colored flags representing 500 years of Indian resistance, first against Spaniard domination, then against nearly two centuries of grinding poverty in a country with a deep divide between rich and poor.
Many of Bolivia's Indians, representing 60 percent of the country's 8.5 million citizens, contend a white elite is responsible for continued repression.
Morales first walked barefoot up the Akapana pyramid and donned the tunic and a cap decorated with traditional yellow and red Aymara patterns. Then he was blessed by priests and accepted a baton adorned with gold and silver, symbolizing his Indian leadership.
After putting on sandals, he descended from the pyramid to address the crowd in front of the Kalasasaya temple.
Morales thanked Mother Earth and God for his political victory and promised to "seek equality and justice," as he closed the ceremony performed by Indian priests, the cultural inheritors of this pre-Incan city whose people mysteriously disappeared without written record long before the Spaniards took control of much of South America.
He also praised the guerrilla Che Guevera, killed in Bolivia while trying to mount an armed revolution, and Tupac Katari, the 18th-century Indian leader who tried to capture La Paz from the Spanish.
He also pledged to work hard to change an international economic order dominated by developed countries that he blames for keeping poor nations trapped in misery.
"The time has come to change this terrible history of looting our natural resources, of discrimination, of humiliation, of hate," Morales said.
"We need the strength of the people to bend the hand of the empire," he added.
Wilfredo Silva, a 32-year-old gas station manager, traveled 25 hours with his two small children on dilapidated buses and trains from a town on the border with Argentina to witness what he called the most important event in Bolivia's history.
"It's an important day for Bolivia because it's a monumental change," Silva said, near Indians standing at attention in dark red ponchos and fedora hats. "The people wanted change, this is giving us the opportunity."
Eusebio Condori, a 50-year-old Aymaran, played Andean music on a reed flute with a group performing Indian dances that were prohibited by the Spaniards during three centuries of Spanish domination that ended during the 19th century.
"It's a joy and a pleasure to be with one of our own," said Condori, wearing a black cap adorned with feathers and a leather cape.
Morales later headed back to La Paz, where the U.S. Embassy said Bolivia's next president would meet Saturday night with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who heads the State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau.
During Sunday's official inauguration, Morales will meet with more modern traditions: full military honors and the bejeweled medals worn by all presidents.
But the former coca growers' union leader also arranged his own proletarian touch: Along with 8,000 police, crowds of miners have volunteered additional protection to Morales in a gesture of solidarity.
A critic of U.S. foreign policy and close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales has promised to fight corruption and poverty by securing more profits from Bolivia's natural resources, including its vast natural gas reserves.
"This struggle won't stop, this struggle won't end," he said.