Embattled Bolivian President Steps Down Amid Riots
The president cancelled a scheduled speech Friday afternoon to the congress in which he was expected step down. Instead, according to news reports, he submitted his resignation in a letter to the legislature.
“The letter of resignation has been sent to Congress,” a high-ranking government source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Even before Sanchez de Lozada’s departure was official, thousands of protestors celebrated the news.
“Finally, the criminal has fallen!” Roberto de la Cruz, a union leader, told Reuters.
Earlier this week, violent protests erupted over the president’s proposal to export natural gas. Opponents of the 73-year-old president claimed the plan would rob Bolivia, considered the poorest country in South America, of one of its most valuable resources.
Sanchez de Lozada had hailed the plan as an economic opportunity that would bring millions of dollars into the country.
The American-educated president was 14 months into his current four-year term. He also served as president from 1993 to 1997.
Under Bolivia’s constitution, Vice President Carlos Mesa would assume the presidency and, according to some analysts, would likely organize new elections.
News reports from Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, said that college students, workers, and peasants, some of them armed with clubs and explosives, had virtually closed down the city while demanding that the president resign.
The country’s armed forces initially said the throngs of protestors would be barred from the capital, but reports from La Paz said protesters had streamed into the city, shutting down businesses and roads.
The Associated Press reported that military aircraft were evacuating stranded foreigners and that the United States was sending a small group to assess security at the American embassy.
“We are going down to look at the protection of Americans and U.S. interests,” Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello said, adding the team would arrive within the next two days.
Protest leaders blamed the government for the violence that erupted during recent demonstrations.
Sanchez de Lozada tried to defuse tension over the plan last week by offering to hold a national referendum but his support continued to evaporate and key members of his government resigned.
The president’s plan would have exported natural gas through a $5 billion dollar pipeline to Chile, which has long had an antagonistic relationship with Bolivia. From Chile the gas would have been shipped to Mexico and the United States.
Observers say Sanchez de Lozoda sought to implement free-market practices that he said would improve Bolivia’s economy but has met with opposition from labor and indigenous farmer organizations that claim the measures haven’t helped the poor.
A recent New York Times report said that many of Bolivia’s indigenous people, who make up a majority of the population, are opposed to free-trade practices and globalization.
The Times reported that protest leader Evo Morales, the head of a coca grower’s organization and a former candidate for president, has recently claimed the United States and multi-national companies wanted to “exterminate the Indian” in order to rob them of their land’s natural resources.