President 'Goni' bids Bolivia adieu

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Latin America Correspondent

Bolivia's embattled president announced in writing Friday that he was stepping down just days after asserting he would never renounce office and following weeks of protests that culminated in a nationwide cry for his departure.

A month of furor over his politics and policies had culminated in violence and bloodshed in the streets of La Paz and a nearby suburb, leaving more than 70 dead.


Known locally as "Goni," President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada sent his letter of resignation to Congress before departing La Paz aboard the presidential airplane for the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

It remains unclear what will become of the embattled leader, though local news sources speculate that he could be headed for the United States or another destination outside the country.

Keeping his exact location a secret Friday appeared to be the smartest decision Sanchez de Lozada has made in the days leading up to his resignation, a period marked with political blunders and heavy-handed tactics that prompted former allies to flee.


The beginning of the end of the president's 14-month stay in power began last Friday when mine workers started protesting the president's proposal to open the Bolivian gas market to the United States and Mexico.

Sanchez de Lozada assured the nation's citizenry that the deal would be a boon for the country. Many Bolivians, however, were skeptical that rampant government corruption would prevent any of its benefits from trickling down. The president who came to power promising reform and jobs -- but produced neither -- couldn't convince the masses that gas exports would prove to be their salvation.

Of course, there was also the matter of transporting the gas through neighboring Chile, a nation many Bolivians still harbor resentment towards for the wars between 1879 and 1935 in which Bolivia lost coastal territory.

In addition to their ire over gas, Bolivia's powerful coca growers group is resentful of the president's backing of a U.S.-financed plan to eradicate illegal coca crops. Leader of the coca growers and radical congressman Evo Morales, who also ran against Goni in the August 2002 election, was a strong proponent of the president stepping down.

What started as ire over gas exportation quickly turned into a class war divided between Bolivia's "have-nots" and the wealthy "haves," many of whom occupy some of nation's highest offices.


The 73-year-old Sanchez de Lozada -- in his second go around as president -- is also one of the wealthiest men in a country where some 60 percent of the population lives on $2 a day. Most of his detractors hail from Bolivia's indigenous Indian population, who view the nation's leaders as a direct extension of their former colonial rulers.

The straw that seemed to break Bolivia's back and sent social turmoil into a furor was the use of deadly force to curtail the growing anti-government sentiment pouring into the streets. On Sunday alone, in the working-class suburb of El Alto, 20 people were killed by the Bolivian military.

Several days later, Sanchez de Lozada attempted to pull Bolivia back from the brink by calling for a national referendum on the gas issue. The move proved too little, too late, as it was roundly rejected by opposition and former allies, who were quickly abandoning the embattled president.

By then, tens of thousands of rural farmers and blue-collar Bolivians began pouring into La Paz, exploding sticks of dynamite and blocking the streets with cobblestones and rubbish.

The fatal blow came earlier Friday when one of Sanchez de Lozada's strongest supporters, Manfred Reyes Villa, declared publicly his disdain for the president.


"The people don't believe in this government anymore and there is no other option but for him to resign," said Reyes Villa. "I've come to tell him 'no more.'"

Bolivian's agreed, especially those who converged on the capital. La Paz has spent several days -- and remains -- under siege by the disenchanted who await a decision by the nation's leaders on who will run the country.

During its late-night session, Bolivia's Congress is expected to follow the letter of the county's constitution and put forward Vice President Carlos Mesa as the country's next leader. It is unclear whether Mesa -- a vocal critic of Sanchez de Lozada for his use of deadly force -- will serve out the remainder of the former president's term, set to expire in 2007.

Coca leader Morales said he was willing to support Mesa's administration "for a while." He might very well still harbor presidential aspirations, as a leftist leader could be well-received in Bolivia's current climate of discontent with Sanchez de Lozada's free-market policies.

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