Bolivians hope for peaceful end to country's deep political divide

Thursday, June 9, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- On one side were riot police guarding the Government Palace with tear gas launchers. On the other were the peasants, students and labor activists who brought down Bolivia's government this week.

In the middle, deep in prayer, was Rosalia Hualata, an evangelical missionary sitting on a park bench with a blue parasol to shield her from the sun that burns through the thin mountain air.

"I am going to stay right here and keep praying to God that this is all settled quickly," Hualata said Wednesday.

Normally a bustling city, La Paz is now a ghost town that comes to life every day when the marchers descend by the thousands from the poor satellite city of El Alto to press their campaign against the government.

They want the constitution rewritten to give more power to Indians. They want a debate on nationalizing Bolivia's oil industry. And, protest leader Evo Morales said Wednesday, they want early elections for a new president.

"The street mobilizations will not halt," said Morales, a leftist Indian leader who would be a leading candidate in any elections, as some 2,000 teachers, peasants and laborers marched through La Paz, Bolivia's capital.

Weeks of such protests coupled by blockades of highways nationwide crippled Bolivia's economy and strangled La Paz. His government buckling, current President Carlos Mesa offered his resignation Monday night after only 19 months in power.

Arranging special session

Lawmakers scrambled Wednesday to arrange a special congressional session to choose his successor this morning in the historic capital of Sucre, hundreds of miles southeast of La Paz. But local news media reported peasant protesters were headed to Sucre in an effort to prevent Congress from convening.

Morales vowed the protests would escalate if Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez -- who, under Bolivia's constitution, becomes president when lawmakers accept Mesa's resignation -- accepts the post.

A farming businessman, Vaca Diez, 56, hails from the eastern region of Santa Cruz and is widely seen as a conservative and free-market supporter.

His party, the MIR, has been mired in past corruption scandals and is widely discredited among Indian and labor groups in the western highlands of La Paz.

"Vaca Diez, we are ready for war!" marchers chanted in the streets.

Morales said he wouldn't let Vaca Diez govern.

"We will not allow them to take power. Now is when the national majority has to govern the country," he said.

Morales and other leaders are trying to persuade Vaca Diez to immediately resign the presidency, sending it to second-in-line House leader Mario Cossio. They want Cossio to resign as well, sending the presidency to third-in-line Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Rodriguez.

If Rodriguez becomes president he must call elections within five months, while either Vaca Diez or Cossio would be allowed by law to serve out Mesa's term, which runs until August 2007.

Vaca Diez has not commented on the opposition's demands.

Bolivia is split between the Indian and labor groups from the poorer western highlands, and the ruling class from Santa Cruz in the east and the oil-rich gas fields to the south.

Also at issue are the divides created by the U.S.-backed war on drugs: Morales draws his support from farmers who grow coca leaf, the raw ingredient for cocaine, while Vaca Diez would likely ally himself with the U.S. campaign to eradicate coca leaf plantations.

Also reeling from the crisis is Bolivia's oil and natural gas industry. Protesters occupied three more oil fields in eastern Bolivia this week to demand the nationalization of the industry. In all, protesters have now paralyzed 13 percent of the country's crude output, according to energy officials.

Bolivia has the second-largest gas and oil reserves in South America after Venezuela, and disruption or nationalization of the energy industry has executives fearful for billions of dollars in investment and for supplies to neighboring nations.

Mesa appealed Tuesday night on national television for Bolivians to bring their country back from what he feared would be armed confrontation.

"This is an exhortation for a country that is on the verge of civil war," he said.

Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue said he feared all sides in the transition battle were hardening their positions, setting up a protracted power struggle.

"It's hard to imagine a good scenario," Shifter said. "The crisis is very profound and all sides are digging in. We're seeing radicalization on all sides, raising the possibility of continued and deepening chaos in the country."

Bus driver Orestes Ortega, 58, scrambled to find some bread to buy and lamented the depth of the crisis.

"I remember bad times during the military dictatorship, but this is also bad," said Ortega, a bus driver. "There's no dialogue and not the least effort to end this big mess."

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