Bolivian protests turn violent even after president offers to resign

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Violent street protests choked off Bolivia's crippled capital on Tuesday, as the collapse of President Carlos Mesa's government failed to quell demands by the poor Indian majority for more power from the white elite that has ruled the country for decades.

Riot police firing arcing tear gas canisters sent thousands of demonstrators fleeing down the cobblestoned streets of La Paz's old colonial center.

Miners, who joined protesting Indians, farmers and laborers, responded by blasting dynamite sticks that sent pigeons fluttering. Ambulances sped away with victims and a major public hospital said it receive 12 victims. Most were felled by tear gas and rubber bullets, but the hospital said one miner lost a hand in a dynamite explosion.

A group of helmeted officers dragged miners roughly from the yellow dump trucks they had used to converge on the city.

Army troops took up defensive positions around the Government Palace, the scene of clashes Monday that capped weeks of opposition to Mesa's U.S.-backed, free-market government. Police reported at least 10 arrests by late afternoon.

Mesa announced his resignation late Monday. Congressional leaders said they would call an emergency session Wednesday at which they were expected to accept his offer -- provided conditions were secure enough to convene Congress.

But protest leaders have said they will not relent in the daily protests which, coupled with street blockades, have caused food, gasoline and water shortages in the capital and shut down public transportation and most business activity.

"This is as far as I go," Mesa said as he submitted his resignation.

If Congress accepts the resignation, it could call for new elections, raising the prospect of Bolivia becoming the seventh Latin American country to move to a leftist government suspicious of U.S. intentions in the region.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and home to an Indian majority that has helped reignite a crisis that has sputtered on and off for decades over demands for greater power.

The crisis in this nation of 8.5 million people pits Indian and labor groups from the poorer western highlands, including La Paz and its poor satellite city of El Alto, against ruling elites from Santa Cruz in the east and the oil-rich gas fields to the south that are pursuing greater autonomy.

The protests have steadily escalated since Bolivia's Congress last month raised taxes on foreign oil companies developing Bolivia's natural gas reserves, which are the second-largest in South America after Venezuela.

Washington has watched with concern for its free-market agenda, which has failed to ease the grinding poverty that affects 64 percent of Bolivians. Per-capita gross domestic product, at $2,600, is among the lowest in the hemisphere.

The poverty has fueled anger at the U.S.-driven globalization movement. A recent tax increase touched off demands for the nationalization of the oil industry and for a new constitution giving more clout to Indians, who represent more than half the population.

The collapse of Mesa's government highlights the growing instability of the Andean region. It follows by just weeks the ouster of Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez in the midst of massive street protests.

In Peru, President Alejandro Toledo, whose popularity ratings have been in the single digits for more than a year, survived an attempt in Congress last month to declare the presidency vacant after a congressional report accused Toledo of helping forge party registration rolls.

A historian-turned-politician, Mesa had no political sponsorship when he was thrust into the presidency in October 2003. He succeeded former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who resigned after street protests over plans to export the country's natural gas reserves left at least 56 people dead.

Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, who would be next in line to succeed Mesa, said he would try to hold the emergency session of Congress on Wednesday afternoon but asked for guarantees that the protests will stop. Indian leaders have said they would reject a Vaca Diez presidency, or one of the next-in-line, House leader Mario Cossio.

They want a candidate from a non-traditional party, like Evo Morales, the leader of poor Indians who have been pressuring one government after another for greater power. He is an admirer of populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has clashed frequently with Washington.

Morales and the more radical Felipe Quispe are the main leaders of the Aymara Indians, who together with the Quechuas make up 60 percent of Bolivia's population. Morales has astutely organized coca leaf farmers from the lowlands and the highlands Indians historically left powerless and poor.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez reacted angrily to suggestions by U.S. officials that Chavez was somehow involved in the Bolivian protests, saying: "No, categorically no."

He and other leaders gathered in Florida for a meeting of the Organization of American States said they were ready to "provide all cooperation" to Bolivia but have no plans to intervene.

"The OAS never intervenes in a country. We're going to see how we can help," OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said.

Latin American political analyst Rosendo Fraga in Argentina said Bolivia's crisis is deeply worrisome to the United States, which stood by Mesa throughout the crisis, and the rest of its neighbors in the Americas.

"Bolivia is at risk of becoming the first failed nation state in the region," Fraga said.

He said Bolivia hasn't broken with constitutional rule, but he characterized the ongoing crisis as an institutional vacuum, whose outcome could shake fragile democracies in Ecuador and Peru, two Andean nations with large Indian populations.

Associated Press writers Monte Hayes in Lima, Peru, and Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, contributed to this report.

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