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Interim President Brings a Tentative Calm to Bolivia

Many protesters are willing to give Eduardo Rodriguez a chance to enact reforms they seek.

June 11, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Calm returned to much of Bolivia on Friday after three weeks of social upheaval as a key leftist leader called on his followers to dismantle dozens of roadblocks after the inauguration of the country's caretaker president.

Eduardo Rodriguez faced serious challenges on his first full day as president after a daylong drama of protest and political intrigue Thursday that ended with his taking office just before midnight.

In his inaugural speech to a late-night special session of Congress on Thursday, Rodriguez said he would call presidential elections no later than December. But it remained unclear how long the restless Indian majority would wait for the comprehensive political and social reforms they have been demanding.

Indian and trade union leaders in El Alto, a La Paz suburb, said Friday that they would continue to block roads leading to the capital for at least another day to press for an immediate nationalization of Bolivia's oil reserves and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

El Alto residents have laid siege to La Paz for three weeks, causing shortages of food and fuel for the nearly 2 million residents of the metropolis.

"We did not launch this fight just to change presidents," Abel Mamani, president of the Federation of Neighborhood Assemblies of El Alto, told 400 representatives elected by the community. "We are willing to go hungry for a few more days now so that our children don't go hungry in the future."

But Evo Morales, the leader of the Movement to Socialism, said activists loyal to his party would lift their blockades -- mostly in central and eastern Bolivia -- in a gesture of support to the new government.

"We have a new president, and I believe he has the will to attend to our demands," Morales said. "His election has lowered the tension, and we have agreed to implement a truce."

Ramon Loyaza of the Confederation of Farmworker Unions said his group was considering a "10 day truce" in its campaign of roadblocks to allow members to sort out the political situation.

In La Paz, large numbers of cars and buses took to the streets for the first time in days. Many of the miners and poor farmers who had come to La Paz to join the protests said they were going home.

"We're going to get some rest," said one man from Yaco, a town in the interior of La Paz province. He sat in the back of a truck with two dozen men and women from his town. "We'll go home for a week, and then we'll come back."

Cars also circulated in El Alto's streets for the first time in days, and many of the barricades throughout the suburb had been dismantled by Friday morning. However, only bicycles traveled the road between El Alto and La Paz, which continued to be blocked with barriers of rocks and tree trunks.

In his 10-minute inaugural speech late Thursday, Rodriguez said he hoped his presidency would be brief.

"One of my duties will be to oversee an electoral process that will transform and renew citizen representation so that this Congress

Rodriguez, the 49-year-old head of the Supreme Court, whose position is fourth in line of presidential succession, took over from Carlos Mesa, who resigned this week. Mesa had been vice president until 2003, when a protest movement drove President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from power.

Hormando Vaca Diez and Mario Cossio, the heads of the Senate and House of Representatives respectively, announced late Thursday that they would turn down the presidency.

Leaders across the political spectrum opposed either Vaca Diez or Cossio as president, fearing their conservative stances would push the country toward civil war.

Buenos Aires Bureau chief Tobar is on assignment in La Paz. Special correspondent Raul Penaranda contributed to this report.

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