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New Bolivia Leader Promises Elections

October 18, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ Bolivia’s new president rushed to form a transition government in talks Saturday with political and labor leaders as his predecessor fled to the United States, forced from power by weeks of deadly riots.

President Carlos Mesa _ inaugurated late Friday after Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned _ promised Bolivians early elections and called for unity in the Andean nation deeply divided along class and social lines.

``We have to respond to one of the biggest challenges in our history. If you all can’t help me there is no way we can crawl out of this,″ Mesa, the former vice president, said late Friday.

Wild celebrations erupted with the resignation of the 73-year-old Sanchez de Lozada, whose beleaguered government collapsed following the violent protests in which 65 people were killed.

The riots were triggered by a plan to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico, a proposal that outraged many Bolivians disillusioned with the ex-president’s free-market economic policies and upset that the gas might flow though neighboring Chile, a longtime rival.

``Popular clamor defeated Sanchez de Lozada,″ a headline in the El Diario newspaper said. ``Democracy is unharmed.″

Police and soldiers completely withdrew from the streets early Saturday. Vendors returned, shops reopened, and traffic in La Paz and other cities resumed.

At the same time, the ousted leader was taking refuge in the United States. He touched down first in Florida before setting off on a flight for Washington, said Bolivian General Consul Moises Jarmusz Levy, in Miami.

Mesa, 50, a former television reporter and a respected historian, said his government will be an interim one, even though the law calls for him to serve out Sanchez de Lozada’s term ending August 2007.

He faces staggering challenges, inheriting the leadership of South America’s poorest country at a time when the economy has been idle for years. Unemployment is at 12 percent and most Bolivians earn around $2 a day.

Bolivia’s future has regional implications, too. Brazil, South America’s biggest economy, relies on Bolivia as an export route to Asia and for the bulk of its natural gas. Bolivia also is an associate member of Mercosur, the trade block made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

``He had an impossible mission,″ said Norman Gall, head of the Sao Paulo-based Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics, said of the ex-president. ``His departure is a bad precedent for the region. It weakens institutions already fragile in this continent.″

Sanchez de Lozada is the latest South American leader driven out of office. In January 2000, a coup removed Ecuador’s Jamil Mahuad during that nation’s worst economic crisis in decades. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez was ousted for a few days by a coup last year, but returned to power only to face a wave of protests demanding new elections.

Analysts also said that while Mesa’s status as a political independent might give him a boost at first, he could have a hard time governing because he lacks a political base.

``Mesa is an outsider, which is helpful in terms of connecting with the disaffected groups,″ said Donna Lee Van Cott, an expert in Latin American politics at the University of Tennessee.

``But it will be very difficult to govern in Congress. It’s going to be very difficult because of the demands of the indigenous sector. They’ve been deprived for so long, it may be difficult to negotiate with them.″

Indian and union leaders spearheaded the street demonstrations, which began in late September and swelled into marches by thousands of poor Bolivians.

With Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation, thousands of demonstrators gathered Saturday at a plaza near the presidential palace, shouting, ``The people have won!″

The U.S. State Department said Saturday that it regrets the events that led to fall of the government and commended Sanchez de Lozada ``for his commitment to democracy and to the well being of his country.″

``It is now the responsibility of Bolivians to take steps to end political polarization and to guarantee respect for human life and the rule of law,″ the statement said, adding that a team would assess security in Bolivia for U.S. embassy staff.

In his resignation letter to Congress, Sanchez de Lozada complained that he was being unfairly forced out of office.

``I do this unwillingly,″ he said, warning that Bolivian democracy was undergoing a ``crucial hour,″ tested by the intense pressure of laborers, unions and other groups.

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