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2003-10-20

Bolivian President Steps Down and Flees to U.S. Amid Mass Protests; VP Takes Over

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Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned late Friday after tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s plan to export natural gas to the U.S. and called for his resignation. As many as 80 people were killed in the protests. We go to La Paz and Cochabamba to hear the latest updates.

Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned late Friday after impoverished indigenous groups, which make up the majority of the population, took to the streets to protest the government’s plan to export natural gas to the U.S. and Mexico. The protests that started in September quickly broadened to other issues and swelled into marches of tens of thousands. They were met with violent repression by Bolivian security forces. As many as 80 people were killed–many of them during the last week of rioting alone.

The unpopular U.S.-educated Sanchez de Lozada resigned in a letter to Congress and then boarded a flight for the United States with six family members and three former cabinet officials.

The Miami Herald interviewed the 73-year old former president holed up in a hotel in Miami. He spoke of his fears for the future of the country and said, "I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m…trying to recover from the shock and shame."

The President’s resignation brought with it a degree of peace in Bolivia. For the first time in a week, the airport was reopened, buses were running again and shops doing business. Many of the tens of thousands of workers and farmers who massed in the cities were reported to be returning home.

Sanchez de Lozada’s successor, the vice-president, Carlos Mesa, began his first day in office by pulling tanks and soldiers off the streets and calling for unity.

Mesa made clear he intended to break with tradition and go outside political circles and parties to form his cabinet–most of the 15 ministers he swore in yesterday are little-known economists and intellectuals. He also said he would hold early elections, and described himself as the head of a transitional government. He said, "If Bolivia loses this opportunity, if the president, the parliament and society do not understand that we are gambling with destiny, we could very quickly fall into very serious crisis."

  • Luiz Gomez, reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornda and the website Narco News. He is speaking to us from La Paz.
  • Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center. He is speaking to us from Cochabamba.

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