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Bolivian Leader Hunkers Down While Protesters Take the Streets

Violence subsides, but food and fuel run short as the capital remains in effect cut off.

October 15, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Faced with a popular uprising, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in effect surrendered control of the capital's streets and roads to crowds of protesting workers and Aymara Indians on Tuesday, while his besieged government huddled inside the presidential residence.

After three weeks of violence that has left more than 50 people dead, this metropolis of 1.5 million people remained in effect cut off from the outside world, its international airport closed since Sunday and its highways to the rest of the country severed by scores of barricades.

Tuesday was a relatively quiet day here and in the mostly Aymara suburb of El Alto, scenes of violent clashes for days. The army and police backed away from earlier attempts to reopen the city to traffic.

Sanchez de Lozada's government has been racked by nationalist protests over his plan to sell Bolivian natural gas through neighboring Chile -- a traditional rival -- and by workers and Indians demanding jobs and social reforms in one of Latin America's poorest countries.

Evo Morales, leader of the opposition Movement Toward Socialism, called on residents of El Alto to keep the international airport surrounded Tuesday so that "these thieves [in the government] don't have any chance to escape."

Sanchez de Lozada accused Morales, a former coca farmer, of "sedition." The president met with leaders of his coalition government in his heavily guarded residence in the San Jose district of this city.

Manfred Reyes Villa, leader of the New Republican Force, a coalition partner, said Tuesday that Sanchez de Lozada should consider resigning. The president was elected last year to serve a five-year term.

"It's an option, but we're not making an ultimatum by any means," Reyes Villa said.

The protests continued to spread through this nation of 9 million people. Protesters clashed Tuesday in Cochabamba and barricaded the highway to Oruro. In Sucre, labor and community leaders called for a "civic strike" demanding the president's resignation.

Demonstrators also blocked a bridge at the Argentine border and promised to keep it closed at least 24 hours.

In La Paz, several days of blockaded streets have led to food and fuel shortages. Presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana announced that a caravan of trucks had been escorted into the city to provide fuel for ambulances and other essential services.

An American-educated businessman and millionaire, Sanchez de Lozada received less than a quarter of the vote in last year's polling but was elected by Congress after assembling a centrist coalition.

Felipe Quispe, the charismatic Aymara Indian leader, and the nation's largest labor federation have joined the call for Sanchez de Lozada's resignation.

Morales, Quispe and other opposition leaders are calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution, saying the current structure discriminates against Bolivia's Aymara and Quechua Indian majority.

In Washington, Cesar Gaviria, leader of the Organization of American States, condemned the violence and warned that "any government that arises anti-democratically is absolutely unacceptable in the Americas."

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