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2005-06-07

Mass Indigenous-led Rebellion Forces Bolivian President to Resign

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For weeks, tens of thousands of indigenous Bolivians have led an uprising against the government, demanding the nationalization of the country’s energy resources and an overhaul of the constitution. Last night, President Carlos Mesa went on national television and announced he was stepping down. We go to Cochabamba, Bolivia to speak with Jim Shultz of The Democracy Center. [includes rush transcript]

The indigenous-led rebellion in Latin America"s poorest country, Bolivia, has taken a dramatic turn. After weeks of massive protest that have crippled large sections of the country, President Carlos Mesa appeared on national television and told the country he was stepping down. As he spoke, tens of thousands of protesters remained in the streets of the capital la Paz.

  • Bolivian President Carlos Mesa

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, speaking last night on national television. This is not the first time that Mesa has offered to resign. In early May, as the protests against his government intensified, Mesa submitted his resignation to the Congress but it was refused in what many saw as a public show. This time, analysts say, that is not the case.

Earlier in the day, Mesa had to be evacuated from the presidential compound after the crowds in the streets swelled so large that there was a real threat the demonstrators could storm the building. A few hours later, Mesa returned to the building under heavy military escort and prepared to deliver his address to the country.

While much of the news reporting on Bolivia has interpreted the massive demonstrations as protests calling for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas resources, that is just one part of the much bigger picture. The country is more than 2/3 indigenous. These communities are calling for what they call a "nationalization of the government," a total overhaul of Bolivia’s system and true representation of the communities that constitute a majority of the country.

Late last night, one of the best-known Bolivian opposition figures, the socialist Congressmember Evo Morales held a news conference.

  • Congressmember Evo Morales

Among the demands Morales laid out were for Carlos Mesa’s presidency to be immediately ended. He also called on the leaders of the Bolivian Senate and House to waive their rights to succeed Mesa. Morales, instead, called on the President of Bolivia"s Supreme Court to organize elections. Morales said it was the only way out of the crisis.

We go now to Cochabamba, where we are joined on the line by longtime Bolivia activist Jim Shultz. He runs an organization called the Democracy Center and writes a blog that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. He is also author of a new book called "Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia"s Black February."

  • Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabama, Bolivia. He writes a blog on the situation in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Bolivian President, Carlos Mesa.

CARLOS MESA: I have made the decision to present my resignation from the office of President of the Republic. This is a resignation that has only one objective, the objective that Bolivian society keeps in mind that the sacrifice has to be genuine, and it cannot be any other thing, and that I cannot do anything else but to hand over this responsibility so that a solution can be reached that gets us out of this situation, which is putting the country and its future at serious risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, speaking last night on national television. This is not the first time Mesa has offered to resign. In early May, as the protests against his government intensified, he submitted his resignation to the congress, but it was refused in what many saw as a public show. This time analysts say it’s not the case. Earlier in the day Mesa had to be evacuated from the presidential compound after the crowds in the streets swelled so large there was a real threat the demonstrators could storm the building. A few hours later Mesa returned to the building under heavy military escort and prepared to deliver his address to the country. While much of the news reporting on Bolivia has interpreted the massive demonstrations as protests calling for the nationalization of the country’s energy resources, that’s just one part of the much bigger picture. The country is more than two-thirds indigenous. These communities are calling for what they call a nationalization of the government, a total overhaul of Bolivia’s system and true representation of the communities that constitute the majority of the country. We go now to Cochabamba, where we are joined on the line by long-time Bolivia activist, Jim Shultz, runs an organization called the Democracy Center, writes a blog that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. He’s also author of a new book called Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia’s Black February. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jim Shultz.

JIM SHULTZ: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the latest?

JIM SHULTZ: Well, your listeners have it. Last night the President, Carlos Mesa, announced his resignation. And this is not a charade. I don’t think he’s going to find the congress rejecting his resignation this time around. What’s going on is a very complicated political game. The demand from the people on the streets here is for two things. One is that the country retake control of its oil and gas resources and, second, that this constituent assembly be convened to rewrite the constitution and to rewrite the political rules. It’s clear to the power in this country that something is going to have to happen. And so, there’s been this effort over the weekend to placate the protests with something different, which would be new elections. Constitutionally the way that it works here if the president resigns and the two leaders of the congress both either resign or refuse to take over the presidency, it automatically triggers a caretaker presidency by the president of the supreme court in new elections. The Catholic Church has been trying to broker such a deal over the weekend, and Mesa was willing to be a part of that. It is unclear whether his resignation will trigger that scenario, because the two congressional leaders have not made their intentions clear about what they’re going to do. So we could end up being actually in a much worse situation over the next 24 hours, because if his successor, the president of the senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, if he were to actually assume the presidency, I think that this country will explode. He is a far, far less respected figure than even Carlos Mesa was.

AMY GOODMAN: What will happen right now, do you think? I wanted to turn for a minute to Evo Morales, who was also recorded speaking last night. Evo Morales, of course, the socialist congress member. Many have talked about him being a future president. Among the demands Morales has laid out were for Carlos Mesa’s presidency to be immediately ended. He also called on the leaders of the Bolivian senate and house to waive their rights to succeed Mesa. Morales instead called on the president of Bolivia’s supreme court to organize elections. He said it was the only way out of the crisis. Your response, Jim Shultz?

JIM SHULTZ: Well, I’m not sure I even agree with Evo on this. I’m not sure that the people who in the streets are going to be happy with a call for new elections. Here’s the situation. If they call new elections, they’re talking about calling new elections under the existing system, under the existing rules. So you have hundreds of thousands of people in this country in the streets demanding that the rules of politics be rewritten. I’m not sure that’s saying, "Well, we’re not going to rewrite the rules, but now we’re going to elect a new government under the old rules." I’m not sure that really satisfies people. It doesn’t address the issue of gas and oil. And it doesn’t address the issue of holding a constituent assembly. And frankly, I think if we were to hold elections in August, September, October in this country, I think that the most likely victor is going to be another former president, Tuto Quiroga, who is a former I.B.M. executive who doesn’t even live here now. He lives primarily in the United States, and who in his one year in office killed more people than his predecessor, the former dictator did in four years. So I think there’s a trap here. And I don’t know that just holding new elections — if new elections were held along with a commitment for the nationalization of oil and gas and a commitment for a constituent assembly, then there might be some sort of a package there. But new elections on its own? I don’t see it settling this country down.

AMY GOODMAN: If this were to go according to the constitutional rules, it would go to — the head of the senate would become the next president, but can you talk about what would happen if he were to take power?

JIM SHULTZ: Well, Evo Morales, he said a couple weeks ago, he said if this guy takes office it’ll last ten minutes, maybe twenty. I think that, first of all, Hormando Vaca Diez, who’s the gentleman we’re talking about, he is a politician allied with the former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was kicked out of this country for killing his own people two years ago. He is from Santa Cruz, and those people who’ve been following the story understand that one of the things that’s going on here in Bolivia is this regional split, where Santa Cruz, which is the wealthy area of the country where a lot of the oil and gas is located, is trying to demand autonomy and essentially get control of the oil and gas, or at least get larger share of the oil and gas. So to put a Santa Cruz politician linked to a deposed president in the presidential palace at this moment in time is just about the stupidest thing that can happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz, finally, there has been some concern expressed that exploiting the vacuum in power, though the power definitely looks like it’s in the hands of the people right now, that generals representing the far right wealthy in Santa Cruz could step into the void.

JIM SHULTZ: You know, I’m not as pessimistic about that as other people are. My sense is that — and the military I think has made this clear, remember this is a country that lived under dictatorship for many years —any Bolivian over the age of 30 has lived under a dictatorship, old enough to remember what it’s like. And so the military, I think, is very hesitant to do that kind of thing. The only way in which I would see a military takeover, and this could change, would be if literally there was no government. If there was no succession, no government, there just seemed to be no central authority whatsoever, I can imagine then the military stepping in. But there is a constitutional process in play here. It is being respected, and it needs to play out, and I think that will happen. And in the meantime, I think the pressures in the streets are going to continue, and I don’t think that people are going to accept anything short at this point of nationalization, of the retaking of oil and gas into public hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Jim Shultz, for joining us. Jim Shultz, speaking to us from Cochabamba, Bolivia. Again, the President of Bolivia, President Mesa, has offered his resignation as there is mass protest in the streets.

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