LA PAZ, Bolivia — Indian groups and civic activists sealed off Bolivia's two largest cities with barricades Wednesday, demanding wide-ranging economic and social reforms from President Carlos Mesa.
The challenge presented Mesa with his worst political crisis since an Indian-led uprising drove his predecessor from office and brought him to power 15 months ago.
The mostly Aymara Indian residents of the town of El Alto blocked all the roads leading to La Paz, the administrative capital, while civic activists in Santa Cruz, the country's commercial capital, shut down the city with a general strike.
In the mining city of Potosi in the south, civic organizations took control of the regional police headquarters.
The showdown between Mesa and leftist and regional leaders in this impoverished country has been building since the president ordered increases in the price of diesel fuel and gasoline two weeks ago.
Anger over the price hikes has set off a variety of other demands, including calls for increased autonomy for eastern Bolivia and the takeover of a local water company.
In an impassioned televised speech Sunday, Mesa said he would rather resign than call out the army and police to restore order. Dozens of people were killed when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada used force to clear the streets and highways of protesters in 2003.
"I will not act like my predecessor," Mesa said. "We will not have tanks on the streets.... I am not willing to resort to violence."
Late Tuesday, Mesa granted a key concession to the El Alto protesters: He agreed to terminate the contract of a French-owned utility company that provides water services to El Alto, a suburb of La Paz that is home to about 800,000 people, many of them displaced peasants.
El Alto community leaders said the company had failed to meet its commitment to provide service to all residents. They said one in four people lacked access to drinking water in the sprawling township, which spreads across a plateau above the capital and around an international airport.
"This battle over water is just one chapter in a larger fight for dignity," said Edgar Ramos Andrade, a journalist here who wrote an impassioned editorial supporting the demands.
The El Alto leaders also have demanded that Mesa rescind the price increase in fuel, something that the president has said would bankrupt the treasury.
Mesa said Bolivia could no longer afford subsidies on diesel and gasoline. The country's artificially low prices, he added, had led to shortages caused in part by the smuggling of fuel to Bolivia's neighbors.
"I am caught between a sword and a wall," he said, accusing the opposition and radical groups of "not allowing me to govern."
In Santa Cruz, civic leaders are demanding more control over the region's affairs. Eastern Bolivia has the country's most fertile farmland and holds its most valuable natural resources: oil and gas reserves. The local leaders also have demanded that Mesa rescind the fuel price hike.
Instead, Mesa made a series of concessions this week to farmers in the region, including lower interest rates on loans.
"The government is retreating because, in the weak position it finds itself, it is the only option possible," said Cesar Rojas, a political scientist in La Paz.
Rojas said the government was caught between two extremes: a radicalized labor and Indian movement that wanted utilities and natural resources to be nationalized, and business leaders who wanted the president to use force to restore order.
Mesa, a historian and former TV commentator, retains strong support only among the country's small, and so far largely passive, middle class, Rojas said.
On Wednesday, Evo Morales, leader of the leftist Movement to Socialism who finished a close second in the last presidential election, called Mesa "public enemy No. 1." He said Mesa should immediately call a new presidential election, though the next balloting is not due until June 2007.
But Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez said Mesa merely needed to "start governing," a phrase widely interpreted here as a call for the president to restore order with force.
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Ordonez from La Paz.