New Bolivia leader to call vote as protests lifted

By Patrick Markey

LA PAZ, Bolivia, June 10 (Reuters) - Bolivia's interim president vowed to hold elections as he took office Friday, leading indigenous groups to start lifting roadblocks after weeks of massive protests.

Eduardo Rodriguez, the former Supreme Court chief, was sworn in as interim president late on Thursday, taking the place of President Carlos Mesa who resigned in an effort to halt protests he feared could push Bolivia toward civil war.

The indigenous majority in South America's poorest country has been clamoring for more political power and gas and oil nationalization -- in direct opposition to a European-descended elite.

"One of my capacities will be to call for an electoral process," Rodriguez said after he was sworn in. "I am offering a short mandate with the help of Congress."

The crisis has shown the increasing power of Indian groups who could now win the new presidential elections. That would herald another shift to the left in Latin America, where many nations are rebelling against U.S. diplomatic and economic influence.

The rise of indigenous protests could also deal a death blow to Washington-backed efforts to eradicate coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. Bolivia is one of the world's biggest producers of a drug that is a livelihood for many peasants.

Troops killed a miner in protests on Thursday as lawmakers suspended an initial session on Mesa's resignation.

Rodriguez, who has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University, is mandated by the Constitution to call elections. His caretaker government has not yet set a date for the vote but he has said elections could be held in December.


La Paz began slowly returning to normal after weeks of blockades caused fuel and food shortages. Drivers formed long lines outside gas stations hoping supplies were restored.

In El Alto, a sprawling poor area in the mountains above the capital, protesters began opening roadways to the international airport although indigenous leaders have yet to officially lift the blockade.

Officials said natural gas supplies began flowing back into the capital for hospitals and factories and indigenous groups lifted a blockade halting access on a main highway leading to eastern Santa Cruz province.

"They have to sort everything out now and we hope that happens today. There is no gas," telecommunications worker Percy Pereira said as he walked to work in La Paz.

Spain's Repsol YPF <REP.MC> said on Friday at least two of its four gas fields in Bolivia affected by protests were back working again and it expected its entire Bolivian operation to resume normal production within 24 hours.

Rodriguez was appointed after Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez and Mario Cossio, leader of the lower house of Congress, both declined to assume the presidency.

Bolivia's Constitution allowed Vaca Diez to replace Mesa, but Indian leaders and many other Bolivians rejected him as representative of a failed traditional political class.

"The poor have won a victory in the streets. So the government should quickly take advantage of the honeymoon period, with a cooperative Congress, at least in principle, and most social movements, to reach a political agreement," analyst Jorge Lazarte said.

The government must still tackle the fervent demands for state control over Bolivia's huge gas reserves. Indian groups say Bolivia's natural gas reserves -- the region's second-largest -- have benefited only the white, European-descended elite.

Rodriguez said he was willing to talk with those pressing for nationalization to discuss rational demands. But he said Congress would have to rule on any reforms.

"We should be able to address the issue of hydrocarbons. The Constitution says the hydrocarbons belong to the state. That has not changed; what has changed is the way they are managed," Rodriguez said.

The new president must also deal with calls for autonomy from wealthy eastern Santa Cruz, where many feel the government has pandered to militant demands from Indians from the mountains surrounding La Paz. Santa Cruz will hold a unilateral referendum on independence in August.

Mesa, a former television news anchor who came to power in 2003 after his predecessor was ousted during a bloody Indian siege, became weaker as Bolivia became polarized during his term.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz, Mario Roque in El Alto)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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