Bolivia's Congress has called on vice-president Carlos Mesa to take the reins in the troubled country after former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned following weeks of upheaval that has left over 80 people dead.
Sanchez de Lozada resigned as president of South America's poorest country late Friday in a letter to Congress and as he prepared to board a flight for the United States, Mesa was named as his replacement.
Congress accepted the dramatic departure of the hugely unpopular US-educated Sanchez de Lozada, 73, by a vote of 84 to 26 after his resignation letter was read aloud to lawmakers at an extraordinary session in the capital late Friday.
People read newspapers in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia on Saturday, October 18, 2003. Bolivia's new President Carlos Mesa began talks with political and labor leaders Saturday, rushing to form a transition government and restore peace after weeks of violent anti-government protests forced his predecessor from power. Wild celebrations replaced protests that killed 65 people following the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
"My resignation, which I submit to Congress, should be sufficient to resolve the nation's problems and while I fervently hope that is so, I fear the solution is not so simple," read the letter.
Mesa said he would not complete Sanchez de Lozada's term, which ends in 2007, but described himself as heading a "transitional government" that would call for new elections after holding a referendum on gas exports and calling a constitutional conference.
The 50-year-old former journalist mourned the loss of life that preceeded the transfer of power and pledged to tackle the volatile issue of natural gas exports with a popular referendum.
"My first obligation is to render my deepest and most heartfelt tribute to the women and men of Bolivia who in recent days gave up their lives for the fatherland, democracy and the future," Mesa said.
A Bolivian diplomat in Miami told AFP that Sanchez de Lozada and his entourage had arrived in the US shortly after 5:00 am (0900 GMT) and were due to depart immediately for Washington three hours later.
The US State Department paid tribute to Sanchez de Lozada and expressed regret for the circumstances that led to his resignation.
"We regret the circumstances including the loss of life that led to ex-President Sanchez de Lozada's resignation," said a statement early Saturday.
"We commend ex-president Sanchez de Lozada for his commitment to democracy and to the well being of his country. We understand that in conformity with Bolivia's constitution, Vice President Carlos Mesa assumes the presidency."
Mesa entered politics early in 2002 when he agreed to stand as Sanchez de Lozada's running mate. He was sworn in as vice president in August of that year.
But he later distanced himself from Sanchez de Lozada, especially over the use of force in dealing with the four weeks of protests that led to the Sanchez de Lozada's resignation. Rights groups say that 86 people died during the protests.
Demonstrations began 33 days ago as labor unions rallied in opposition to Sanchez de Lozada's plan to build a five-billion-dollar pipeline through Chile to deliver gas to the US and Mexican markets.
Protesters complained that under current law, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, would get only 18 percent of the profits from the project.
The opposition seized upon the pipeline project to vent a series of grievances against the president, especially his free-market economic policies.
After starting his second five-year term as president in August 2002, Sanchez de Lozada enforced an International Monetary Fund-backed austerity program to get the finances of South America's poorest country back in order.
But violent protests earlier this year forced him to back off on key parts of the program. A special tax, reduced pensions and faster privatization all had to be abandoned.
Firebrand opposition leader Evo Morales said the forces that ousted Sanchez de Lozada would give the new president time to get established, and welcomed the gas referendum that demonstrators had earlier rejected.
Copyright 2003 AFP