Bolivian protests begin to subside

Saturday, June 11, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Protesters who drove Bolivia's president from office began to leave occupied oil fields Friday and lifted the first of their 100-odd roadblocks as the country's new leader moved into the Government Palace.

But demonstrators marched on the capital, La Paz, in a show of strength to make sure the new president respects pledges to call early elections and consider their demands for an end to widespread inequality and poverty.

As Eduardo Rodriguez stood Friday in La Paz's Government Palace to receive the presidential sash, firecrackers boomed and thousands of protesters marched only blocks away. It was clear from his first day in office that he would have no honeymoon.

The Harvard-trained jurist has a daunting challenge: to defuse a country clamoring for a greater share of power, for nationalizing the oil industry and for backing away from free-market programs they blame for widespread poverty.

Rodriguez said he would call presidential elections within five months to complete the term of Carlos Mesa, a U.S. ally who resigned after 19 chaotic months in power because of the enormous street protests.

Congress accepted his resignation late Thursday. Fearing more protests, the two men in line for the presidency both deferred to Rodriguez. Under Bolivia's constitution, Rodriguez must call presidential elections within 150 days -- about five months.

Rodriguez promised to study ways to bring together Bolivia's society, polarized between haves and have-nots, between people with more Indian or more European blood, and between long-established ruling elites and powerless poor.

Protests clogged La Paz on Friday, but with fewer people than the tens of thousands who marched in previous days.

"Bolivia has avoided the worst," said political scientist Jorge Lazarte.

Sanet Pardo, one of 1,500 teachers and labor activists on the streets, said the show of strength was a warning to the new president that the opposition wants action.

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