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Bolivia Receives Promises of Support at Washington Conference - 2004-01-17

The United States Friday played host to a 19-nation conference aimed at organizing economic help for Bolivia and its embattled democratic government. Participants are said to have made pledges of support though no figures were released.

The meeting, which included key Latin American and Western European countries, along with international lending institutions and the United Nations, was not technically a donors' conference.

But there were pledges of support and the participants set up a steering committee that will aim to translate those into tangible backing for Bolivia's beleaguered economy and democratic government.

Bolivia was plunged into crisis last October amid mass protests, fueled in part by coca producers against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was forced to step down in favor of Vice President Carlos Mesa.

Mr. Mesa's government has since been struggling to improve the region's weakest economy, and the plight of Bolivia was a major issue at last week's Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, where the United States and Mexico agreed to set up the support group.

Last year's protests in La Paz had an anti-American tone, with demonstrators protesting the free-market policies of the U.S.-educated former president and his controversial plan to export natural gas to the United States via a pipeline through Chile.

But at a news conference capping Friday's meeting, Bolivia's minister of the presidency, Jose Antonio Galindo, said the political ferment in his country is not so much an anti-U.S. phenomenon as it is a feeling among Bolivians that the economic system has failed them:

"It's not that we have an anti-American thing in Bolivia," he said. "It's that the people feel that the system has failed, not the Americans or the Europeans. The system has failed. And we have and we ought to do something real fast to show them that we care not only for the macro-economics but also for the small people from the rural areas."

Mr. Galindo said it is not just a Bolivian problem, since the crisis could bring instability to the Andean region.

Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, the chief U.S. delegate, said the Bolivian team presented what he termed a "sober report" about the government's needs for the coming year as well as a "powerful" plan for strengthening the economy and democratic institutions.

He said the United States, which gave Bolivia $154 million in aid last year, plans to provide another $150 million this year pending approval by Congress, and is projecting a similar amount for fiscal year 2005.

Mr. Grossman said in response to a Bolivian appeal in Friday's closed-door sessions, officials of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund promised to speed up the delivery of loan money already committed to help the Mesa government deal with a severe budget shortfall.

The State Department official said the steering group would be quickly established to go about the work of redeeming pledges of assistance.