LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivia’s caretaker president met Sunday with activists in the opposition stronghold of El Alto and appealed for calm as labor leaders promised more crippling protests if he does not meet their demands.
Interim President Eduardo Rodriguez spent nearly two hours with the coalition of Indian and labor activists whose nearly month-long blockade cut off the main food and gasoline supply route from the slum city of El Alto to the capital, La Paz. They demanded he nationalize the country’s oil and gas industries and hold early elections.
“We must re-establish the peace,” Rodriguez told strike leaders.
Rodriguez took office last Thursday after weeks of street marches that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the capital from El Alto, a teeming city of 750,000 that was the nucleus for the anti-government protests that led to the ouster of Carlos Mesa’s U.S.-backed government
The interim president’s meeting with the opposition leaders in El Alto even before he had formed a Cabinet underscored the urgency of re-establishing calm in this impoverished country. Opposition leaders promised another march into La Paz on Tuesday in a show of strength as Congress begins a session to assess their demands.
The demonstrators were demanding the ruling elite grant more power to the poor majority through a “constitutional assembly,” that the country’s natural gas fields be nationalized and that the government back away from the free market reforms many impoverished Bolivians blame for compounding chronic poverty in the country.
The demonstrations and blockades that spread across this Andean nation of 8.5 million people were ignited by a coalition of highland Indians centered in El Alto, then caught on with labor activists, miners, leftist students and coca-leaf farmers elsewhere, dooming Mesa after 19 chaotic months in power.
Abel Mamani, one of the protest leaders in El Alto, praised Rodriguez for agreeing to the meeting. But Mamani said his group was going ahead with plans for a large-scale – but peaceful – protest march Tuesday, although it would not be accompanied by the crippling street blockades.
“There is a willingness on the part of the president” to work through the demands, Mamani told local reporters.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez blamed free market policies promoted by the United States for Bolivia’s crisis. Chavez, an outspoken critic of Washington’s foreign policy, said proposals by President Bush for a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement would only lead to greater poverty – and protests – in the region. Evo Morales, the Bolivian congressman who led the protests and has designs on the presidency, calls himself a follower of Chavez.
Bush has said the agreement will open the way to peace and prosperity in the Americas.
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