- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned yesterday with his government collapsing after weeks of deadly protests set off by a plan to export natural gas to the United States.

Bolivians poured into the streets to celebrate his exit.

Congress formally accepted the resignation late last night. The legislators were expected to name Vice President Carlos Mesa to replace him, as called for under Bolivia’s constitution. A former television reporter, Mr. Mesa is a political independent and a respected historian.

The 73-year-old president submitted his resignation in a letter to Congress, said an aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Sanchez de Lozada then left the presidential residence in a helicopter for the western city of Santa Cruz, according to radio reports. They said he would eventually travel to the United States, but that could not be independently confirmed.

The resignation came after thousands of Bolivians marched through La Paz for a fifth straight day yesterday, demanding Mr. Sanchez de Lozada step down 14 months into his second term. Columns of students, Indians and miners brandishing sticks of dynamite threaded past street barricades, shouting, “We will not stop until he’s gone.”

On a day when pandemonium ruled the La Paz streets, military planes airlifted hundreds of stranded foreigners from the capital.

The U.S. military dispatched an assessment team to Bolivia yesterday to determine whether plans need to be updated for protecting or evacuating the American Embassy, said Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned Americans to defer travel to Bolivia.

The popular outrage against the president was sparked by a proposal to export gas to the United States and Mexico through neighboring Chile.

The proposal tapped deep discord with Bolivia’s decade-old free-market experiment, which has failed to narrow the enormous gap between rich and poor in this impoverished country.

The proposal also underscored spreading distrust with Mr. Sanchez de Lozada’s U.S.-backed anti-coca growing policies, which have deprived thousands of poor Indian farmers of their livelihood and plunged the president’s popularity ratings into the single-digits.

Mr. Sanchez de Lozada temporarily suspended the gas-export plan last week in the face of riots, which human rights groups said claimed as many as 65 lives. But the demonstrations for his resignation continued as many people objected to the government’s heavy-handed response to the protests.

On Wednesday, the president sought to defuse the growing crisis with a nationally televised address in which he offered to hold a national referendum vote over the plan. But opponents rejected that offer.

In defending the gas export plan, the president called the gas resources “a gift from God” that would bring millions of dollars annually to a cash-strapped Andean country. But few here believe his claims that average Bolivians, many of whom earn only a few dollars a day, would benefit.

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