- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s new president yesterday promised early elections and began forming a transition government as his predecessor fled to the United States, driven from office by a month of violent demonstrations.

President Carlos Mesa — the former vice president inaugurated late Friday after President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned — takes over this struggling Andean nation amid its worst crisis in decades and after rioting that left 65 persons dead.

“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,” the new president said late Friday.

Mr. Mesa, 50, held talks at his home yesterday with labor and government officials, and said his administration would be an interim one, even though the law allows for him to serve out the rest of the ex-president’s term — until August 2007.

The departure of the 73-year-old Mr. Sanchez de Lozada brought a degree of peace: Soldiers and police withdrew from the streets in the capital, La Paz, and other cities early yesterday. Merchants and vendors reopened for business. Governments around Latin America offered support for Mr. Mesa.

Still, Mr. Mesa inherits a climate of social unrest over the ex-president’s free-market economic policies, seen as widening the divide between rich and poor.

Poor Bolivians, Indians and labor leaders spearheaded the street demonstrations that started in mid-September and swelled into marches by thousands of angry people. Protesters set up road blocks that caused food shortages and isolated La Paz from the rest of the country.

The riots erupted over Mr. Sanchez de Lozada’s plan to export natural gas to Mexico and California. The ex-president had hoped to tap the country’s expansive natural gas reserves to lift South America’s poorest country out of years of economic stagnation. But many Bolivians were angry that the fuel might be shipped through a port in neighboring Chile instead of through Peru, another option. Bolivia lost its coastline in an 1879 war with Chile, and resentment is fierce to this day.

Meanwhile, the disgraced ex-president sought refuge in the United States, where he was raised and educated, out of concern for his safety in Bolivia. His plane touched down first in Florida before flying to Washington, D.C., said Bolivian General Consul Moises Jarmusz Levy in Miami.

The State Department said yesterday that it regretted the events that led to fall of Bolivia’s government and commended Mr. Sanchez de Lozada “for his commitment to democracy and to the well-being of his country.” It had no immediate comment on his arrival in the United States.

Abandoning the presidential residence in a military helicopter, Mr. Sanchez de Lozada became the fourth Latin American president driven from office by widespread protests in recent years.

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