Fri, Jun 10, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Bolivia `on the brink of civil war' as protests grow

POLITICAL CRISIS Farmers and miners are descending on La Paz in an effort to force the government to hold new elections and nationalize the oil and gas industries

AFP , SUCRE, BOLIVIA

Protesters descend from the city of El Alto to La Paz, Bolivia, on Wednesday. Protesters who forced Bolivian President Carlos Mesa to resign took to the streets again to denounce a congressional leader poised to replace him and to demand early elections that could boost the presidential aspirations of an anti-US Indian leader.

PHOTO: AP

Forced by demonstrators to leave La Paz and meet in Sucre to discuss President Carlos Mesa's resignation, Bolivia's Congress yesterday could face the same music, as protesters vowed to take their fight all the way to the country's political capital.

Evo Morales, a leftist leader of coca farmers and one of the most influential protest leaders, called on Quechua Indians in the Sucre area, 740km southeast of La Paz, to prevent the meeting, set for 10:30am.

Protesters will tighten their blockade of roads leading to Sucre, Morales said Wednesday, adding that militant area miners were heading towards the city. Some 2,000 Quechua Indians were also heading to Sucre from the city of Cochabamba, a top Morales lieutenant said.

Mesa, who resigned Monday, warned in a speech Tuesday that Bolivia was so polarized it was heading towards civil war.

"Let us avoid lost lives, let us avoid a violence that devours us all," he said, calling for early elections. He also warned that Bolivia was "on the brink of civil war."

Felipe Quispe, an Aymara Indian protest leader, seemed to relish the idea. "That is much better, because that way we can define (the future of) this country with weapons," he said in an interview with a Peruvian radio stations.

"There is a racial battle between whites and Indians," he said. "It was high time for us (Indians) to take power, that the invaders return our territory," he added.

Demonstrators are demanding new presidential elections, the nationalization of the oil and gas industry and constitutional reform to establish regional autonomy.

Mesa called on Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez -- first in line to succeed him -- and House of Deputies leader Mario Cossio to resign in order to facilitate early presidential elections.

If both step aside that would allow Supreme Court chief justice Eduardo Rodriguez to become interim leader and call for early elections.

Congress could also reject Mesa's resignation, as it did on March 7, when he also offered to step down amid popular unrest.

Mesa served as president for 20 months, after his predecessor Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was also driven from office by protests over control of Bolivia's gas reserves.

A successor would serve out the remainder of Sanchez de Lozada's term, through August 2007.

Bolivia's social meltdown pits the poorer Andean regions surrounding La Paz against interests in the modern, relatively prosperous eastern and southern plains, where most of the natural gas wealth is located.

The government has raised taxes on oil and gas companies doing business in Bolivia in a bid to quell discontent, but protest leaders vowed demonstrations would continue until their goal of nationalization is met.

In eastern Bolivia, protesting Guarani Indians took over three oil fields belonging to British Petroleum and four belonging to Spain's Repsol, a spokesman for a group representing the 20 foreign energy concerns operating in Bolivia said.

Protesters earlier took over a pipeline station on the border with Chile, cutting off crude exports to the northern Chilean port of Arica.

The political system is dominated by people of mostly European descent -- many descending from 16th century Spanish conquistadores -- oriented to global markets. But grassroots activism has stirred demonstrators in the majority indigenous Aymara and Quechua nation of 8.5 million to a greater share of their country's wealth.

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