- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia began its return to normalcy yesterday after being under siege for weeks by widespread protests that finally prompted lawmakers to accept the resignation of President Carlos Mesa and appoint a new leader.

Traffic trickled back into the streets of the capital, La Paz, some shops opened, and people returned to work after a week of intense protests, roadblocks and a transportation strike that sealed off the city from the rest of the country.

Food and fuel shortages, however, are still a concern to the city’s more than 1 million residents. Cars lined up for blocks at gas stations only to find there was no fuel available. Food markets are low on basic goods, and there have been some reports of looting.

Much of the city was without heating or cooking gas as well, thanks to protesters who shut off the city’s main valves leading up to Thursday’s decision by Congress to accept Mr. Mesa’s resignation and the appointment of Supreme Court leader Eduardo Rodriguez as president.

Mr. Rodriguez made clear shortly after his inauguration early yesterday morning that he had no ambitions to complete Mr. Mesa’s term which expires in 2007.

“I have no political ambitions,” Mr. Rodriguez said in his inaugural speech. “I wish to serve a brief mandate.” Mr. Rodriguez was actually third in line to assume the presidency. Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez and Congress President Mario Cossio Cortez both declined the position, as protesters denounced them as part and parcel of the Mesa administration they despised.

Bolivia has now had three presidents in the last 19 months. Political commentator Jose Gramunt criticized the Rodriquez appointment as a short-term answer to a long-term problem with the government not adequately representing Bolivians. “It’s a typical solution in Bolivia,” said Mr. Gramunt, noting how protesters’ hatred of Mr. Vaca Diez and Mr. Cossio Cortez prompted lawmakers to choose Mr. Rodriguez.

Though two-thirds of Bolivia’s 9.1 million people consider themselves of indigenous descent, the vast majority of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of those descended from Spaniards.

Meanwhile Bolivia’s new leader, a lawyer who attended Harvard University, stressed in his inaugural address that he would call for early election just as protesters had demanded.

“I am convinced that one of my duties, one of my responsibilities, will be to summon this electoral process in which civic representation will be changed and renewed,” said Mr. Rodriguez, adding he was hopeful that lawmakers could go on “to forge a fairer and more equitable democracy.” For many of the tens of thousands of protesters who marched through the capital yesterday in victory, early elections are not enough to satisfy them.

The focus of their ire with the Mesa administration and the Congress has been their handling of Bolivia’s gas industry, and yesterday they continued to call for its nationalization. Other protest demands include a rewritten constitution to give Bolivia’s indigenous people more representation in the government. They are also condemning a call by eastern gas-rich provinces to become more autonomous.

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