Published on Friday, June 10, 2005 by Reuters
New Bolivian Leader Promises Early Election
by Patrick Markey
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivia's Congress on Thursday named Supreme Court President Eduardo Rodriguez to replace Carlos Mesa as president in an effort to end weeks of political crisis in the Andean nation.
Rodriguez, takes over the presidency of a country polarized between indigenous movements demanding more power and wealthy regional provinces pressing for more independence.
The new president, a lawyer with a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University, is an interim leader who is required by the constitution to call elections later this year.
President Carlos Mesa resigned after three weeks of blockades by the poor Indian majority, who called for nationalization of energy reserves and a special constitutional assembly. Protests caused fuel and food shortages in La Paz and stoked fears of violence in South America's poorest nation.
"Constitutional duty has brought me here as a judge, who has a mandate to fulfill and who is convinced Bolivians need democracy, union and peace," Rodriguez said as he was sworn in during an emergency session by the Congress.
Lawmakers, who abandoned earlier attempts to vote on the new president amid violent protests, held a brief late-night session after Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez and the leader of the lower house of Congress both declined to assume the presidency.
The constitution allowed Vaca Diez to replace Mesa, but he faced growing opposition from Indian leaders and many Bolivians who saw him as representative of a failed traditional political class.
"Hopefully this decision will help pacify the country," Mesa said as he left the presidential palace. "I apologize to the country, but I did my best."
Bolivian troops shot and killed a miner in protests on Thursday as lawmakers suspended the first session. Police firing tear gas battled peasants and miners who set off sticks of dynamite and set fire to tires in the streets to protest the miners death and demand Vaca Diez step aside.
Bolivia's military commanders had earlier called for calm and said they would support Congress, if its decision upholds the law.
"We will respect the Congress' decision ... as long as there is no break with the constitution and no break with democracy, the armed forces will remain the supervisors of this process," Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Adm. Luis Aranda said.
CALL FOR NATIONALIZATION
The naming of Rodriguez as president was a key demand for protesters in the militant city of El Alto, a sprawling poor area in the mountains above La Paz, who had vowed to maintain their blockades of the capital unless Vaca Diez renounced the presidency.
Evo Morales, a left-leaning former coca grower and indigenous leader, warned that his MAS party would not allow Vaca Diez to assume power and called for civil disobedience to pressure for elections.
But Morales and other indigenous leaders say nationalization is a key issue they will not negotiate. It was unclear how Rodriguez would deal with those demands.
Peasant protesters have blocked access to several natural gas fields operated by foreign companies in eastern Santa Cruz province and forced them to halt production.
Spanish energy group Repsol YPF said protests had forced it to reduce output by an amount equal to 0.3 percent of its global production and Brazil's Petrobras warned civil unrest could hurt its natural gas supplies.
Bolivia's deepening crisis prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a senior official to the country at the request of the government.
Mesa, who came to power in 2003 after his predecessor was ousted during a bloody Indian siege, urged early elections after offering to resign. The former TV presenter had little congressional support and was weakened as Bolivia became polarized during his term. Rodriguez inherits a difficult task.
Indian groups say Bolivia's energy riches have benefited only the white, European-descended elite. They want an assembly on constitutional reform to give them more representation. But in wealthy Santa Cruz, business leaders fed up with what they see as pandering to radical indigenous groups are demanding more autonomy from La Paz.
Weeks of often violent protests and roadblocks in La Paz have left gas stations dry and meat and bread increasingly scarce. Several airlines have suspended flights and the United States ordered nonemergency personnel to leave its embassy.
© 2005, Reuters Ltd