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Mesa Is Still President, but Chaos Reigns

The protests that forced Bolivia's leader to offer to resign halt commerce in the capital. Congress may be unable to meet there to pick a successor.

June 08, 2005|Hector Tobar and Oscar Ordonez | Special to The Times

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A day after his second try at quitting as this Andean nation's president, Carlos Mesa remained in office Tuesday as opposing camps failed to agree on where they should meet to choose his replacement.

Battles raged on the streets of this capital city and commerce ground to a halt. Hormando Vaca Diez, the president of the Senate, said the siege of La Paz by mostly Indian and poor farmers would make it difficult for Congress to meet here.

Demonstrators have cut off the city's road links as they demand that the government nationalize Bolivia's oil and gas reserves and convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution to grant more power to the Indian majority.

Vaca Diez, who is next in line to succeed the president, said that congressional leaders could decide as early as today where the legislature would meet. Congress might convene in Sucre, Bolivia's ceremonial seat of government, about 260 miles southeast of La Paz.

Mesa tendered his resignation in a speech late Monday, conceding that he was no longer able to govern in the face of the protest movements. He also submitted his resignation in March, but stayed in office when Congress rejected it.

Now, however, it is clear that Mesa's political support has evaporated.

According to news reports here, Vaca Diez is trying to build support among the legislators for a plan that would have him assume the presidency for 90 days, until an election can be held.

Vaca Diez represents Santa Cruz, the relatively affluent eastern province where regional leaders have said they will hold a referendum to decide whether the region should enjoy greater autonomy from the central government.

The eastern leaders want Bolivia's highly centralized government to be reconstituted with weaker federal powers. They are also seeking more local control over the petroleum reserves in their districts.

Indian and trade union leaders said Tuesday that they would fiercely oppose a Vaca Diez presidency, saying he represented the nation's "eastern oligarchy."

If Vaca Diez becomes president, "it would be a declaration of war on western Bolivia," said Cesar Rojas Rios, a political scientist here.

"Vaca Diez would put regional autonomy before the Constituent Assembly, sharpening the conflict."

It has become clear that the leaders of the social movement based in the La Paz suburb of El Alto and the western Altiplano want dramatic changes in Bolivia's political institutions and the distribution of its wealth.

Roberto de la Cruz, an Aymara leader in El Alto, said that if Vaca Diez assumed the presidency, tens of thousands of protesters in La Paz might cease to recognize the central government and form their own.

"We will form a popular government of indigenous people, peasants, workers and middle-class professionals," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Vaca Diez issued a vague pronouncement early Tuesday, calling for respect of the Bolivian Constitution and asking the La Paz protesters to give "guarantees" that they would allow the Congress to meet.

One solution to the crisis would have Eduardo Rodriguez, the head of the Supreme Court, assume the presidency. Rodriguez would then call an early election to pick a new president and Congress.

But reaching that agreement is impossible as long as Congress fails to convene a special session.

Evo Morales of the Movement to Socialism, a leading potential candidate to be the next president, insisted Tuesday that the special session of Congress be held in La Paz.

On Tuesday, protesters clashed with riot police just blocks from the Plaza Murillo, the site of Congress and the presidential palace. Protesters set off small chunks of dynamite, and the police responded with tear gas.

In El Alto, residents have built numerous barricades and dug ditches to halt intercity highway traffic. They have also surrounded the Senkata oil refinery, La Paz's main fuel source, preventing tanker trucks from loading. The roadblocks have caused fuel shortages.

Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Ordonez from La Paz. Special correspondent Raul Penaranda in La Paz also contributed to this report.

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