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

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Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez 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.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez 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 Sánchez 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 Bolivia and said, quote, “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 running again, shops doing business. Many of the tens of thousands of workers and farmers who massed in the cities were reported to be returning home.

Sánchez 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 head of a transitional government. He said, quote, “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.”

We turn now to two people: on the line with us, Luis Gómez, reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada — he’s in La Paz — and Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba.

Luis Gómez, we start with you. Can you talk about the significance of what has taken place this weekend with the resignation of the Bolivian president?

LUIS GÓMEZ: Yeah. Well, the people struggled in the streets for the first time in history. It was the main or the key element to the resignation of the president. Now, in the main Indigenous city of this continent, I mean, El Alto, with 800,000 people, Aymara mainly, it has proven for the first time in history that they are strong enough even to make a president resign. So, now the organizations are taking very seriously the power of the people. And, on the other hand, the parties are rethinking how to work and to get close to the people again, because there is a very severe crisis in the political arena right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz in Cochabamba, you interviewed Carlos Mesa, the new president, six months ago. Can you talk about him and the effect of the anti-globalization movement?

JIM SHULTZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

To put this in context for a second, I think it’s important to remember this is the third time in three years that Bolivia has had a major civic uprising over an issue that is really about globalization and how Bolivia is and is not going to integrate itself into the global economy. We had the revolt over water privatization here in 2000 here in Cochabamba, when the Bechtel Corporation was kicked out after it raised people’s water rates. We had, in February, the uprising in La Paz and nationwide against an International Monetary Fund austerity package that the government was trying to implement. And now we had this uprising, which was sparked by the proposed export deal of gas to California, which ended up in the president being forced to get on a plane and go to Miami.

So, the question I think that people are asking in terms of Carlos Mesa is: Will his actions — I think there two questions. Will his actions match the words that he spoke to the country on Friday night? And if they do, will he be able to pull it off in terms of the politics of the country?

What Carlos Mesa said to the country on Friday night, I think, were mostly all the right things. I was with Oscar Olivera, the leader of the water revolt, and other people who were very involved in leading this round of uprisings. And they received the speech very well. I mean, he said, “Look, we’re going to have a binding public vote on the gas deal. We’re going to have a constituent assembly. I recognize that I’m not going to serve a full term of office, that we’re going to have a rewriting of the Constitution and new rules of the game,” which is exactly what has to happen here.

Now, I interviewed Carlos Mesa in his office in La Paz after the February revolt against the International Monetary Fund. He didn’t sound so progressive when I talked to him then. He basically said that the logic of the IMF’s position was solid, that Bolivia did need to do a lot of the things that the IMF was demanding that they do. What he said was, “Look, we told the International Monetary Fund we couldn’t implement this because the people would never accept it.” He told me, “But we warned them that exactly the kind of violence and uprising that happened would happen if the IMF insisted.” And he looked at me, and he said, “But, you know, the IMF doesn’t listen.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, and Luis Gómez, from La Paz.

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