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Bolivian President Exits Amid Uprising

October 18, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned Friday following a six-day siege of this capital city by workers and peasants who accused him of selling out their country to foreign interests.

A 73-year-old, U.S.-educated businessman and one of the wealthiest people in the country, Sanchez de Lozada was driven from office by an uprising of its poorest citizens, the Aymara and Quechua Indians who are the majority in the ethnically divided nation.

Arriving from La Paz's impoverished suburbs as well as dozens of surrounding towns and villages, the protesters cut nearly all the city's highway and air links, causing widespread food and fuel shortages and stranding hundreds of foreign tourists in this city of 1.4 million people.

"We are very happy today, but this is only the beginning," said Serafin Paco, a miner who marched to La Paz from the provincial town of Huanuni. "Now we have to fight for our salaries, so that we can all live in better conditions."

Having marched hundreds of miles in their hard hats to join the antigovernment protests in La Paz, Paco and other miners celebrated in its central plaza by setting off dynamite blasts.

In a resignation letter, accepted by a special session of Congress late Friday, Sanchez de Lozada said "seditious elements" employing violence had forced him to step down. He said he did not believe his resignation would bring a quick solution to the "profound causes of this crisis."

Bolivian television reported that Sanchez de Lozada left La Paz by helicopter Friday afternoon shortly after writing his letter of resignation. The same reports suggested that he was planning to board a flight to the United States.

Vice President Carlos Mesa, a 50-year-old journalist and historian, took the oath of office as president late Friday. Under the law, he may serve out Sanchez de Lozada's term, due to end in 2007, but Mesa said he favored a "clear and transparent" vote sooner than that.

Wearing the red, yellow and green presidential sash, Mesa addressed Congress after being sworn in and appealed for national unity, even as he acknowledged Bolivia's social woes. "Bolivia is still not a country of equals," he said. "We must understand our peoples, our Quechuas and Aymaras."

Earlier this week, Mesa broke with the Sanchez de Lozada government over its violent repression of the protest movement. More than 70 people have died in a month of clashes sparked by a plan to export this landlocked nation's natural gas -- now controlled by a multinational consortium -- by building a pipeline to a port in neighboring Chile. Sanchez de Lozada agreed Monday to scrap the plan, but that did not satisfy his critics.

"The resignation of Sanchez de Lozada is a triumph for the people of Bolivia," said Sacha Llorenti, one of the nation's leading human rights activists. "Thousands of people have achieved this feat for their country, for its natural resources and for its democracy."

For Bolivia's poor, the export of one of the country's few lucrative natural resources became a symbol of all that was wrong with their society.

"Keep our gas Bolivian!" went a slogan repeated in countless protest signs and graffiti.

Most Bolivians don't have natural gas connections and must buy propane or firewood for cooking and heating. Many believed the export plan would have benefited only a handful of politicians and foreign companies.

"First they sold off all the tin we had, and now they want to give away the gas," said Javier Santos, a street vendor who joined the protests. "The Bolivian people are tired of being cheated."

Last month, worker and peasant groups began to barricade roads across the country to protest the pipeline plan. Police and army troops, who tried to keep the roads open -- and in one case attempted to rescue stranded tourists in the Lake Titicaca region -- opened fire on some demonstrators.

After two bloody days of protests last weekend, the movement swelled in size and expanded its demands, calling for the president's resignation. The protests were centered in El Alto, a La Paz suburb of 750,000 that is home to many peasants displaced by Bolivia's harsh poverty.

El Alto is also the location of La Paz's international airport, and nearly all highways that connect the city to the rest of the country go through there. Beginning Sunday, El Alto residents tore up streets and built countless barricades, isolating the capital.

The nation's largest labor federation called for a general strike. Only emergency and media vehicles have circulated in La Paz since Sunday.

As the week progressed, the protests quickly spread to other cities. Middle-class residents of La Paz joined the movement, with some going on hunger strikes to demand that the president step down.

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