Sun, Jun 12, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Bolivians keep up the pressure

UNREST Although leaders have been forced to make concessions to the Indian-led majority, protesters are bent on fighting until the resources are nationalized


Bolivian mine workers, gathering in La Paz, smoke as they wait for a congressional session in Sucre to begin on Thursday. Supreme court chief Eduardo Rodriguez took office as a caretaker president in Bolivia and vowed to hold early elections, aiming to quell a three-week uprising by impoverished people desperately demanding a share of Bolivia's natural gas wealth.


Demonstrators who forced the resignation of Bolivia's president Friday warned the country's interim leader of new street protests unless he takes quick action to nationalize the natural gas industry.

The warning came as an immediate challenge to Supreme Court chief Eduardo Rodriguez who took over from president Carlos Mesa late Thursday and promised general elections before the end of the year in a bid to end weeks of unrest.

Mesa was the second president in 20 months to be forced to resign by the poor masses seeking a greater share of the wealth from Bolivia's energy resources.

While some roadblocks were taken down, thousands of people took part in marches in the capital, La Paz, and a high profile community leader, Abel Mamani, said street protests would start again unless nationalization was started in 72 hours.

Mamani is a leader of activist groups in El Alto, a crowded, impoverished city outside La Paz, which played a key role in ending Mesa's term in office. The groups held a meeting at which they warned of new road blocks and other action unless their demands were met.

"There has only been a changing of the guard," said Miguel Zubieta of the mine workers' federation, highlighting how the authorities had not made any concession on calls for the nationalization of oil and gas reserves.

Evo Morales, a left wing leader of coca leaf farmers, began agitating on the gas issue even before Rodriguez was sworn in. Rodriguez "must nationalize the gas and commit himself to call a constitutional assembly," said the leader of of the Movement Toward Socialism.

Meanwhile, neighboring Argentina, Brazil and Chile looked into alternative sources of gas, should protests in Bolivia continue, especially if protesters repeat their takeovers of pipelines out of the country.

Rodriguez, 49, was sworn in hurriedly in Sucre, without the presidential sash and regalia, before a session meeting of legislators as protesters clashed with police outside. In La Paz, he held meetings with Mesa at the presidential palace and sought to ease tensions that had led Mesa to warn of a civil war earlier in the week.

Some demonstrators lifted roadblocks in a tentative truce after Mesa resigned and Rodriguez was sworn in late Thursday at an emergency session of Congress in the city of Sucre. Rodriguez did not set a date for polls, but the constitution stipulates that he must organize new elections within six months.

For three weeks, tens of thousands of farmers, workers and indigenous people in the Andean country of nine million clamored in La Paz and other cities for the nationalization of the gas and oil industry as part of a more equitable distribution of wealth. The protests began after Congress passed a law last month forcing oil and gas companies to pay extra taxes and royalties. Protesters said that the measure did not go far enough.

Bolivia's crisis pits poorer Andean regions in and around La Paz against the more prosperous eastern and southern plains, where most of the natural gas is located. The political system is dominated by people of European descent while the indigenous majority struggles with grinding poverty.

One miner was killed in the hours before Mesa's resignation and four other protesters died in a road accident, but they were the only deaths reported in the unrest.

Coro Mayta, 52, described as a leader in a militant miner union, was shot dead as he and other miners tried to overwhelm an army checkpoint in the small town of Yotala, just outside Sucre, a union official said on a Quechua-language radio station.

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