BOLIVIANS DEMAND THE RESIGNATION OF THEIR PRESIDENT
By Alistair Scrutton
LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada has resigned in a letter to Congress, a senior government source has said, after a month-long revolt by Bolivia's Indian majority in which more than 70 people died.
"The letter of resignation has been sent to Congress," the source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
The decision on Friday, which the government has not immediately confirmed, came after tens of thousands of people had marched and blockaded the world's highest capital for weeks to reject Sanchez de Lozada's pro-U.S., free-market economic policies.
Sanchez de Lozada, 73, had been due to inform Congress of his decision later in the evening. But some protesters took his departure for granted, dancing and clapping in the streets. Miners exploded dynamite before singing the nation anthem.
Local TV reported that he may have left the presidential residence in a helicopter for the international airport.
Constitutionally, the president's resignation would be followed by the appointment of Vice President Carlos Mesa, a respected journalist who is not a member of a major party. He would then serve out Lozada's term, due to end in 2007.
"Finally, the criminal has fallen!" said Roberto de la Cruz, a union leader. Like many protesters he blames the president for the deaths of demonstrators, nearly all of whom died from bullet wounds after being shot by police or troops.
His resignation would come as La Paz lay in ruins. Streets are barricaded and little food entered in the last week. Basic necessities from bread to aspirin are in short supply. Streets are littered with garbage, broken glass and tires. The peppery sting of tear gas hangs in the air.
Lozada, who spoke Spanish with a U.S. accent and was nicknamed the "gringo", was widely seen as out of touch with a poverty stricken Indian population. Many live on less than $5 a week. The life expectancy in some areas is under 45 years.
His fall from a free-market star of Washington in his first 1993-1997 government has coincided with a Latin American trend of increasingly sophisticated indigenous movements, who organise themselves with cell phones and the Internet.
Washington may be worried. His U.S.-backed effort to eradicate coca, the raw material for cocaine, made him a key ally in the anti-drug war but angered farmers. A plan to export natural gas sparked unrest in this nation of 8 million.
Some Indian leaders want new elections with Mesa as interim leader. But Bolivia's constitution, legal experts say, makes it difficult for him to call elections and analysts warn of a period of chaos if he does not deal with Indian demands to alleviate poverty and halt foreign investments in the energy sector.
Earlier in the day, a main partner in Sanchez de Lozada's ruling coalition Manfred Reyes Villa withdrew his support for the government because of the bloodshed as hordes of miners, farmers and Indian women marched to the centre of the capital.
The protesters shouted "quit, quit" and exploded dynamite sticks two blocks from a government palace guarded by troops and assault vehicles. Live television showed congressmen being bussed into the centre of La Paz, escorted down otherwise deserted streets by heavily armed police.
The growing political muscle of socialist movements in Bolivia extends a shift toward the left across South America where new leaders in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina have questioned who benefits from free trade and investment flows.
A Brazilian Air Force plane evacuated 108 people from La Paz, while Israel was also making arrangements for stranded tourists to be airlifted out. U.S and British governments have advised their citizens not to travel to Bolivia.
The U.S. military said it was sending a small team of security specialists to the American Embassy in La Paz to examine contingency plans to evacuate diplomats if necessary.