Bolivia's new president returns to the helm for fourth time

V'ictor Paz Estenssoro returns this week to the presidency of his nation for the fourth time in 33 years. But his inauguration today is far from an auspicious occasion. Bolivia is a troubled land. Economically, the nation is virtually belly up -- with an inflation rate soaring at almost 1,000 percent a month. The tin mines, on which much of the country's wealth has been based, are in trouble. At least half the work force is now on strike or has been within the past two months. Business bankruptcies soared in early 1985 to some 1,250 a month.

Moreover, the landlocked nation's political structure is in disarray, a far cry from the days when Dr. Paz's political reform movement was in full sway. Whether the durable Paz can bring solutions to this array of problems remains to be seen.

Paz has not been in power for two decades and has remained largely aloof from the turmoil rocking Bolivia. He has become more politically conservative since 1952 when he rode to power on a populist-reform program that ended centuries of foreign control of the tin mines, redistributed landed estates to thousands of landless Indians, and brought universal suffrage to a largely Indian population.

``One doesn't go through life without changing,'' Paz said in a recent interview. ``I have changed. I still believe in reform, but sometimes one has to put aside some of the things you believe in because the times require other policies. Moderation is called for today.''

Old political loyalties and a Latin American penchant for going with familiar faces are the real reasons behind Paz's return to the presidency. His selection by the Bolivian Congress, in voting Sunday, came after neither he nor anyone else in the July 14 presidential balloting won a majority. Paz and another former president, Gen. Hugo Banzer Su'arez, ran a close race, with the vote count seesawing back and forth -- and with claims of fraud in some of the count.

It was the support of the leading leftist candidate, Jaime Paz Zamora, that gave the edge to V'ictor Paz in the congressional balloting, allowing him to emerge victorious.

Political observers in La Paz, the capital, worry that random attacks on police and on government offices by supporters of both General Banzer and Dr. Paz, as well as by supporters of some of the 16 other candidates, suggest what may be ahead for Bolivia.

At the same time, Banzer and V'ictor Paz have worked hard in recent days to keep their unhappy supporters from resorting to violence.

``Gen. Banzer has won, and make no mistake about that,'' said a top Banzer aide. ``But it won't do any good if we take to the street.'' That same sentiment was echoed at Paz's headquarters.

Yet the slow vote count, questions on when Congress will vote and who will eventually be declared the winner, as well as whether there will need to be an interim president, put a tremendous strain on Bolivia's fragil democratic structure.

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