On his way to a startling victory in Bolivia's presidential election, Evo Morales campaigned hard on behalf of his nation's poverty-stricken indigenous coca growers and vowed never to kowtow to the United States.
But now that he has won the race, will Morales join Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to become a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States? Or will he tone down his campaign rhetoric and instead become a pragmatic leader?
"There is a danger of Morales becoming more closely tied to both Chavez and Castro," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group. "The danger is there, but it's not inevitable," he said.
Riding the Anti-American Wave
By netting more than 54 percent of the vote in Sunday's balloting, Morales will become Bolivia's first-ever indigenous leader.
During his campaign, Morales, the 46-year-old head of the Movement Toward Socialism party, promised he'd be "a nightmare for the U.S." He also vowed to end America's coca-eradication efforts and replace his country's market-driven U.S. economic model with a state-run system.
As his criticism of the United States escalated, Morales' poll numbers shot up, giving him a broad-based victory. Despite the rhetoric, experts believe he rode the anti-American ticket to protest U.S. policies and fight Indian discrimination rather than wage war with the White House.
The new president's championing of the largely indigenous coca growers -- 70 percent of Bolivians are Aymara and Quechuan Indians -- has worked to his political advantage from the start of his career.
In the mid-1980s, he emerged as the union leader of coca growers, emphasizing the hardships the coca crackdown had on Indians. Bolivia used to be the largest producer of the coca leaf, exporting the crop legally across the globe for medicinal purposes (it now ranks third in coca production, behind Columbia and Peru).
The United States started its eradication efforts during an economic downturn, pushing already poor people with no cash crop into poverty, said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American Caribbean Center at Florida International University.
"Morales is a direct product of our counter-drug and American policy," he said.
At one time, Gamarra said, the United States threatened to break off relations with Bolivia if the country elected a leader who did not oppose the drug trade.
"The more the U.S. tried eradication," said Gamarra, the more Evo [Morales] grew and the more violent the U.S. reaction became." Meanwhile, the promise of better times never materialized.
Mired in Poverty, and Increasingly Frustrated
Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in South America, with 10 percent of the population possessing most of the country's wealth. Only 16 percent of the indigenous population has access to water or electricity, according to a 2003 World Bank report.
"A decade and a half of reform policies have not produced benefits for the vast majority of Bolivian citizens," said Schneider from the International Crisis Group.
"Evo has managed to organize the frustration and the anger of the population and direct it toward traditional parties and put together a winning coalition."
Riding the protest wave, Morales caused some anxiety stateside, but the administration didn't let it show. The U.S. State Department applauded the Bolivian people for "conducting peaceful elections and demonstrating commitment to democracy."
The congratulations came with a subtle message, however.
"The quality of our relationship will depend on the policies of the new government on a wide range of issues," said Jan Edmonson, spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, reading from a prepared statement.
Not Emulating Cuba ... Or the U.S.
"Obviously the MAS [Morales' party] doesn't want to provoke the U.S., but neither will it want to rely on the U.S.," said Jeff Vogt, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He predicts Bolivia will likely strengthen its ties with Europe and its immediate neighbors.
"We are going to see tighter integration within Latin America," he said.
Experts believe that now that the campaign is over, Morales will cool his rhetoric and strike a middle ground between communism and economic liberalism, while focusing on strengthening Bolivia's weakened government. The nation has had five different presidents in the past four years.
"They will reassert the state as economic, political and social actor after decades of governments that weakened or dismantled state institutions," Vogt said, referring to Morales' party.
It has been called a pink tide instead of a red revolution.
"The new left in Latin America is not trying to emulate the Cuban model but rather strking a more pragmatic stance," Vogt said, pointing to the growing number of South American countries with left-leaning leaders like Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner.
"The left in 2006 in Latin America is far different than in 1976," said Julia Sweig, director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Forget taking power through force and arms, the left now uses democratic channels. "It means, domestically, there's no rejection of markets, and it means independence and autonomy from the U.S. on the international scene," she said.
Bolivia has huge untapped natural gas reserves but needs money to extract the precious commodity. This will likely be Morales' first litmus test. He will have to attract foreign investors and also prove to his supporters that the cash infusion benefits his constituents.