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Senator Prepares to Take Over in Bolivia Despite Opposition

President Mesa urges his likely successor not to take the post, saying he could spark 'civil war.'

June 09, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Outgoing President Carlos Mesa and other leaders warned of an impending "civil war" as a conservative senator prepared Wednesday to assume power in this conflict-ravaged country.

Hormando Vaca Diez, who could be sworn in as early as today, told reporters a "blood bath" could result if protest groups opposed his presidency. Vaca Diez, as president of the Senate, is next in line to succeed Mesa, who offered his resignation Monday.

Groups representing Indians, agricultural workers and unions that have laid siege to La Paz and other Bolivian cities said Wednesday that they would vehemently oppose Vaca Diez's succession because he represented the nation's "eastern oligarchy."

Vaca Diez is from the relatively affluent province of Santa Cruz, which is seeking greater autonomy. Eastern leaders have grown weary of the protests led mostly by Aymara and Quechua Indians in western Bolivia.

The social upheaval has spread across the country. Local media reported that poor farmers demanding nationalization of the country's oil reserves had seized at least seven oil wells in remote areas of Santa Cruz province. In Potosi province, indigenous leaders announced that they would seize property owned by large landholders.

At a news conference at his home in the city of Santa Cruz late Tuesday, Vaca Diez said that the time had come to end "the vacuum of power" in Bolivia and restore order after months of upheaval.

"If one faction from the many social sectors chooses to set aside these principles [of national unity] and pushes toward confrontation and a blood bath, it will end in authoritarian government," Vaca Diez said. Congress is scheduled to meet today in Sucre, the constitutional capital, to accept Mesa's resignation. The legislature is also expected to ratify a new president.

Vaca Diez moved the congressional session from La Paz, the seat of Bolivia's federal government, saying the legislature lacked the security "guarantees" necessary to meet there.

In a televised address late Tuesday, Mesa urged Vaca Diez not to seek the presidency, saying he could provoke a "civil war."

"Hormando, as a person, as a politician, as someone who has known you for a long time, I make a personal plea to you," he said. "Don't insist on going down a road that's impossible to follow."

Mesa, the vice president who came to power in 2003, decided to step down in the face of the tens of thousands of protesters who have laid siege to La Paz and other Bolivian cities.

Vaca Diez said he was confident the police and the army could restore order and would remain loyal to a new government in a country divided along ethnic and regional lines.

"I am absolutely convinced that the armed forces will back us and will help guarantee that democracy does not die in Bolivia," he said.

In La Paz, Indian and workers leaders said they would engage in acts of "civic resistance" against police and army troops should the government attempt to clear the streets.

The leftist and Indian groups want to convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution to give more power to its indigenous and impoverished majority.

Evo Morales, leader of the Movement to Socialism and an Aymara Indian, called Vaca Diez "a member of the political mafia."

"We absolutely cannot accept Vaca Diez as president," Morales said. "He is the head of a system of corrupt and obsolete political parties which are destined to disappear."

Miners and activists from Chuquisaca, Potosi, Oruro and other regions said Wednesday that they would march on Sucre in a bid to thwart Vaca Diez.

Morales finished second in the last presidential election in 2002 to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was ousted from power by an Indian-led protest movement in October 2003.

Morales is considered among the favorites to win a presidential election. He and other leaders of centrist and leftist parties have called on Congress to appoint the head of the Supreme Court as a caretaker president until an election can be held.

And Wednesday, police in La Paz said they were preparing to guard government buildings in the capital city.

Two air carriers, LAN Chile and American Airlines, canceled flights to La Paz on Wednesday. The airport is in the El Alto suburb, an Indian stronghold.

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