New Bolivia leader calls for end to violence
( 2003-10-19 11:00) (Agencies)
Bolivia's new president ventured into the slum city at the heart of the country's popular revolt on Saturday, appealing for calm one day after his predecessor quit in the face of protests that claimed more than 70 lives.
President Carlos Mesa, elevated from vice-president after President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada stepped down on Friday, received a rousing welcome in El Alto, a ramshackle community of about 700,000 people overlooking La Paz.
"Never again should we lose a life through battles with the government," Mesa, addressing his first public rally since taking office, told a cheering crowd of about 1,000 people. The throng included old women in traditional bowler hats and young men waving the multicolored Inca flag.
Under the constitution Mesa can serve until 2007 but he has asked congress to call early elections. He says his "gigantic task" is leading an interim government that prevents South America's poorest nation "sinking to the bottom."
He said on Saturday "there would be no major changes" to Sanchez de Lozada's U.S.-backed drive to wipe out coca leaf crops -- the raw material for cocaine. But he pledged to negotiate with the peasant farmers who blame the policy for deepening their poverty.
El Alto was the focus of Indian-led protests against free-market policies that opponents say give Bolivia's natural gas resources to foreigners. Locals called the uprising, in which 74 people were killed, the "gas war."
Mesa, a respected journalist and political independent, appears to have escaped the resentment directed at his predecessor, a free-market advocate and U.S. ally in the anti-drug war.
Despite his role as Sanchez de Lozada's deputy and his membership of the traditional European-descended elite, Mesa has won at least a brief respite from protesters willing to give him time to prove himself.
Evo Morales, an Indian leader who came second last year in presidential elections and who symbolizes the Indians' organizational strength, said: "I ask for calm ... until the government gets organized and meets the demands of society."
Mesa faces major obstacles -- designated by congress to serve out the rest of Sanchez de Lozada's term, he has little electoral legitimacy and no formal political party support.
He promised to address Indian grievances, including holding a referendum on plans to export natural gas to the United States. Indian groups say the project will only benefit neighboring Chile, the United States and foreign investors.
In La Paz, for the first time in a week, buses ran on Saturday, flights took off and people shopped for groceries as Indians lifted a siege of the city that had cut off food and fuel.
"I nearly got run over today. I forgot what it was like to have traffic on the roads," said Felipe Huaman, a mechanic who returned to his shop in the city center after a week.
Sanchez de Lozada was the fourth South American president to have been forced out of office by popular protests since 2000, joining former leaders of Ecuador, Argentina and Peru.
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