Tue, Oct 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Bolivian president names cabinet of independents

WOOING THE POOR The new leader, who also created a special ministry to deal with Indian affairs, gave a stern warning to his 15 new ministers not to make any mistakes

REUTERS , LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

Bolivia's presidential honor guard march during a ceremony in La Paz to welcome the country's new leader on Sunday.

PHOTO: AFP

Bolivia's new president named a non-partisan Cabinet on Sunday, creating a special ministry to deal with Indian affairs in a bid to woo the impoverished indigenous majority that toppled his predecessor in a bloody revolt.

"Any mistakes could make Bolivia fall into the abyss," President Carlos Mesa warned his 15 new ministers at a ceremony at the government palace two days after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, quit in the face of protests that paralyzed the country.

Mesa, who was vice president under Sanchez de Lozada, picked a cabinet of technocrats and political independents he hoped would win popular acceptance after 74 people -- mainly Indian demonstrators -- were killed in protests over the last month.

The new ministry of indigenous affairs will deal with issues affecting the Indian majority, who have demanded among other things the scrapping of free market reforms backed by Sanchez de Lozada.

One indigenous group promised to allow Mesa time to demonstrate his sincerity.

"His announcements -- if they are carried out -- reflect the fall of neo-liberalism," said Antonio Peredo, a legislator and ideologue of the MAS party, the country's biggest Indian group.

The revolt that forced out Sanchez de Lozada was sparked by his plans to export natural gas through Chile to Mexico and the US, a scheme that his critics said would benefit only the rich.

The protests also fed on resentment of a US-backed anti-narcotics campaign to eradicate coca crops and on opposition to the former president's economic policies.

Mesa already faces criticism in some quarters and Bolivians say he must show results fast to avoid fresh protests. His term finishes in 2007 but Mesa has asked congress to call early elections.

Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the US after being toppled, told the <> he was "trying to recover from the shock and shame."

Many of Bolivia's 8 million citizens live on less than $5 a week and say decades of market reforms have not helped them.

"Our country is still polarized. God help us if Mesa fails," said office clerk Jaime Lopez as he left Sunday Mass at a church in downtown La Paz.

Powerful Indian leader Felipe Quispe, who rails against the "European elites" of Bolivia, said there were still road blockades in the Andean heartland.

"We are going to have problems with Mesa. He has deals with the gringos of the United States," Quispe said, adding he would give Mesa 90 days to abandon the gas project and the coca eradication drive or face new protests.

On Sunday, Mesa addressed members of Bolivia's powerful armed forces, who gave him their backing. "The nation's defense is about the defense of lives of our citizens," the president told a military rally in La Paz. Many of those killed in the protests were shot dead by troops.

Criticism of Mesa emerged in the southern region of Tarija, home of the bulk of Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves, where political leaders fear Mesa will accede to the demands to stop the gas exporting project.

The president has promised a referendum on the gas plan. Many Indian groups demand the project be nationalized, with proceeds going to help alleviate poverty.

At the UN, a spokesman said Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "heartened" that a constitutional solution had been found to the Bolivian crisis.

"He offers the people of Bolivia the assistance of the UN system in helping to address the difficult challenges that they face," the spokesman said.

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