Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Bolivia's president gives in to some opposition demands

REUTERS , LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, besieged by massive protests by an enraged Indian majority, appeared to have taken the political initiative by ceding to some opposition demands.

In what could be a last-ditch attempt to avoid the danger of a bloodbath, the president stood side by side late on Wednesday with his coalition partners, saying "Bolivian democracy was never in such grave danger" and ceding to some opposition calls to reform his free-market economic policies.

"For the first time in this crisis the president has taken the political initiative," said Jorge Lazarte, a political analyst. "It's a move that could prove very difficult for the opposition to respond to."

Sanchez de Lozada promised a referendum on a controversial gas project, a reform of a free-market energy law and constitutional reforms. The referendum and criticisms of foreign investment in the energy sector have been some of the opposition's rallying cries.

Several protests against the president, a businessman who speaks Spanish with a US accent and is one of Bolivia's richest men, have widened over the last month to cover most regions of South America's poorest country. An estimated 55 people have been killed.

With the capital besieged by barricades and basic foods like bread and eggs in scarce supply, the president's proposal may find support among some sectors of a population who face increasing difficulty to feed their families.

But other Bolivians are furious at the deaths of many Indian miners and farmers shot by troops and police. Some of their children scream in horror at the sight of armed police on motorcycles speeding through their neighborhoods on patrol.

These Bolivians, many living on less than US$2 a day, say the government and the Indian majority are so far apart that only Sanchez de Lozada's resignation will end the crisis.

Protests have gathered momentum. Central Obrera Boliviana, a major union, said thousands of its women would go on hunger strike in Roman Catholic churches. Men would dig holes in roads across Bolivia to widen blockades that have paralyzed both agriculture and many rural industries.

Thousands of coca farmers and workers, including other miners who blew up dynamite sticks on cobbled colonial streets, rallied in the center of La Paz on Wednesday only blocks away from a presidential palace guarded by a ring of riot police.

Heightening tensions, the army fought to block a column of dynamite-wielding miners from streaming into La Paz, leaving two dead. They said the miners were trying to smuggle dynamite, arms and ammunition into the city.

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