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Bolivia's New President Faces Many Challenges - 2003-10-18

Bolivia has a new president, journalist and historian Carlos Mesa. Mr. Mesa, who was vice-president - was sworn in late Friday, following the official resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Mr. Sanchez de Lozada had earlier stepped down, after weeks of bloody anti-government protests that left nearly 80 people dead. At issue was a gas export deal that many Bolivians said would do little to help poor people. Philip Withers Green a journalist in the capital, La Paz, tells VOA's Rebecca Ward the controversy over the gas deal may not have been the only driving force behind the protests.

GREEN: The outgoing president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, said quite clearly in his resignation letter that he felt that the gas issue has been used as a pretext by the opposition to lever [arouse] discontent. The fact is that the economy had been bumping along at the low bottom for three or four years now and people really feel that the government doesn't represent them. It doesn't listen to them. It doesn't respond to their needs.

The gas issue was used by the opposition as a kind of banner to bring together lots of different union groups and social groups. It was the glue that bound them together and allowed this to become such an enormous protest. But in a way it is not really the issue. The issue is about representative democracy in Bolivia and about the ability of the poor and indigenous majority to really have their needs met by what they consider to be a government of upper class people who have descended from white immigrants imposed on them by the Spanish colonial period here.

WARD: How did President, now ex-President, Sanchez de Lozada get into power in the first place?

GREEN: Well, he was elected in a very close run election last year. His party won 22.5 percent of the vote followed by the opposition indigenous party with 21 percent of the vote and then two other parties very close behind them. The vote was highly fragmented. Only by forming a coalition with a three party coalition was the president able to govern at all and have a legislative agenda.

WARD: So now President Carlos Mesa is in a precarious situation.

GREEN: Well, he is. He said some very radical things in his speech to congress this evening. Immediately after the resignation of the president was accepted by congress, Carlos Mesa was sworn in as president and he made a half hour unscripted address to congress that was quite radical, quite visionary. He said a number of things. In theory, and under Bolivia's constitution, Carlos Mesa could now serve out the rest the term of this government, which doesn't end until August 2007, but he said he won't do that. He said he wants to see two things achieved by congress in as short a time as it is possible to achieve them. One is finally dealing with the issue of gas and carrying out a referendum on the gas issue in which all Bolivians would have a right to express their view on just how Bolivia's natural gas resources will be used in the future.

The government of Sanchez de Lozada really didn't want to go for a referendum, so that is a break from the past. And then the other thing that he said is that he wants to carry out a process - there has been a big strong call here in Bolivia to institute a constituent assembly that will allow for a complete reform of the constitution and make it much more representative of Bolivia's indigenous majority. He said he wants to oversee that process and once that process is complete he will step aside and allow elections to take place. Actually, under the constitution, that is not allowed, but I am sure they will find a way of finessing it.

WARD: Do you think the lawmakers will go along with that idea because that could put their seats in danger?

GREEN: Indeed it could and something else Carlos Mesa said was that the cabinet he appoints will have no party political people in it whatsoever, and that is something he is going to have to work very hard to make stick, I think, because in Bolivia political parties like to have appointees in government. That is how they give jobs to their supporters and it would be a huge break with tradition and will be very difficult to make stick.

WARD: Any reaction from the opposition yet?

GREEN: There was a lot of catcalling and whistling at the beginning of the session of congress and at the end there was again catcalling and so on, but they largely listened respectfully to what he had to say and he was widely applauded by the congress. But the opposition is not going to lie down. They are not entirely happy with the idea that Carlos Mesa has come in. They have done all the hard work to get rid of Sanchez de Lozado but they have not really achieved that much in terms of their own ability to gain power, so this promise of an early election is going to have to be fulfilled or there will be, I'm sure, more agitation in the not too distant future.