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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Bolivia's peacemaker seeks brighter future

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC South America correspondent in La Paz

Few people would envy Eduardo Rodriguez. As the respected head of Bolivia's Supreme Court, this amiable 49-year-old lawyer was destined for a predictable and uneventful future.

But then on 9 June, he had the Bolivian presidency thrust upon him. In the face of growing violence on the streets Carlos Mesa had stepped down from high office. He had gone on to warn that the country was on the brink of civil war.

President Eduardo Rodriguez
Rodriguez steered the country away from civil strife
Mr Rodriguez became the country's third president in less than two years. Most Bolivians believed he was the only man who could save them.

But were things really that bad?

"No, I don't think so," President Rodriguez told the BBC during a recent interview at the government palace in La Paz.

"I would say that we did have a political crisis, but not to the extent that we could have a civil war. I would say it was mostly a crisis of understanding, of making things move in Congress or at the Executive. Fortunately, we got to the point where democracy helped us solve the problem."

Just over a month has passed since Mr Rodriguez became president.

He welcomed me into one of the cavernous reception rooms on the top floor of the presidential palace (his office was apparently too close to the plaza, where a protest against the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl was taking place).


At six feet tall, he is bigger than I expected. He is friendly - nervous, even. But clearly this is a man who knows the limitations of his mandate and who is modest about his already considerable achievements.

Agreements he brokered earlier in July mean that on 4 December, Bolivians will elect a new president, vice-president, legislators and local governors.

Protest in La Paz
Carlos Mesa quit amid mass protests
And then in 12 months' time, there will be a referendum for regional autonomy, as well as a vote for a national assembly which will rewrite the constitution.

But are elections really the solution?

"They are not the only solution," says Mr Rodriguez. "Elections will bring legitimate representation. And with better and renewed representation we might be able to walk ahead in terms of doing what the country has to do."

Many analysts expect Bolivians to follow the emerging pattern in South America and elect a left-leaning president. How much of the vote that candidate wins could be crucial to the country's stability.

I just wish we should be able to conduct a free and transparent election
Eduardo Rodriguez
"If the result shows again a very fragmented country, of course we will have problems in the future," says Gonzalo Chavez of the Catholic University. "But Bolivians expect to make the right choice and probably we will have three or four parties that can form a pact in the New Year."

One man who will not be standing is Eduardo Rodriguez. The bespectacled incumbent laughs at the prospect.

Speaking English in the calm, measured tones one would expect from a Harvard alumnus, he says that once out of office he will go back to being a judge.

As for his replacement: "I don't have a candidate myself," he says.

"I just wish we should be able to conduct a free and transparent election. And that whoever wins gets enough support to conduct a full period without having to change things as we have done. Something that should never happen again is to have a judge conducting the presidency."

'After the storm'

On the burning issue of the re-nationalisation of the country's gas reserves - ostensibly one of the main reasons behind June's unrest - Mr Rodriguez tries to play to his people, as well as foreign investors: "Bolivian oil and gas was, is, and always will be Bolivian. So when we talk about nationalising, we have to make clear what it means.

Bolivian refinery
Rodriguez plans to honour existing oil and gas contracts
"Therefore, what I will be doing, is honouring our contracts... Whatever happens in the future should be made according to the constitution and the law."

For now, all of Bolivia's various interest groups appear willing to give peace a chance. Even firebrand, left-wing, indigenous leaders appear to have been pacified by the prospect of political power.

"After the storm," says Mr Rodriguez, "I guess we feel like we have a brighter future and wider horizons ahead of us, better resources and a better chance of understanding each other."

This might sound like the empty optimism one has come to expect from Bolivian leaders over the past couple of years.

But the sense you get in the country right now - from all sides - is that this time their president just might have a point.

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