Tensions remain high in Latin America’s poorest country, Bolivia, and some fear the situation could rapidly deteriorate into a bloodbath or a civil war. Today, the Bolivian Congress will attempt to convene to decide who will govern the country following the resignation earlier this week of President Carlos Mesa, who stepped down amid massive protests led by groups representing the country’s majority indigenous population. The protests have shut down large areas of the country and have been largest in the political capital La Paz. The situation is so volatile there that the Congress has been unable to convene and so lawmakers are headed to the historical capital of Sucre to hold emergency meetings today.
The outgoing president, Mesa, is warning that the country may be on the brink of a civil war. In an unusual move, Mesa publicly called on the right-wing President of the Bolivian Senate to waive his constitutional right to succeed Mesa. But that politician, Hormando Vaca Diez has made clear he does not intend to do that and has warned that if the demonstrators opposed him, there could be a bloodbath. The right-wing Vaca Diez has also hinted that he may declare martial law. In a statement that has worried veteran Bolivia analysts, he said '’I am absolutely convinced that the armed forces will back us." Meanwhile, veteran Bolivia analyst Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba is reporting that his sources are telling him that the US embassy is now in talks with Vaca Diez, helping to pave the way for his taking over the presidency. He also reports that just before Mesa resigned earlier this week, he met with the US ambassador. Shultz writes "Vaca Diez is a close ally of the deposed and reviled ex-President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. He comes from Santa Cruz, the region whose demands for autonomy have helped spark this crisis. He is an opponent of returning the country's gas and oil to public hands. He has also called chillingly for Mesa "to govern", again, shorthand for using the military to crush protests."
Meanwhile, the country’s indigenous groups, labor unions, agricultural workers and others who have poured into the streets and shut down Bolivia have vowed to resist Vaca Diez and say they will engage in "civic resistance" against police and army troops if the government attempts to impose martial law. Here is one of the country’s leading opposition figures, Congressmember Evo Morales:
"And if Hormando Vaca Diez becomes president instead of rejecting the constitutional succession, we will call for a united and organized resistance to prevent the government of Hormando Vaca Diez who will only serve the interests of the transnationals. We will call for a civil disobedience in order to demand the respect of Bolivia."
Bolivian opposition leader Evo Morales. He is now calling for early elections to be held. Meanwhile, as the country’s future remains in the balance, the protests are continuing. Twenty six miners were injured when they were fired on by police and the mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado, announced yesterday that he was beginning a hunger strike to protest Vaca Diez. del Granado spoke to reporters yesterday:
"There are more that twenty institutions in La Paz that have started a hunger strike and we are calling on all residents of the capital to join us in solidarity to say to the country and to Hormando Vaca Diez that he cannot succeed as president of the republic. He represents, sadly, the old way of thinking and we Bolivians demand change, renovation and transformation."
The mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado. The current crisis in Bolivia was sparked by massive popular resistance to foreign control of the country"s energy resources. Bolivia has estimated natural gas reserves of more than 50 trillion cubic feet second only to Venezuela in South America, according to U.S. Energy Department figures. Twenty-six foreign oil and gas companies have 70 licenses to operate in Bolivia. While control of natural resources is a central issue for the masses protesting in the streets, it is by no means the only one. At the heart of the protests are the rights of the country’s indigenous communities who say they want not just a nationalization of the country’s resources but a nationalization of the government and an end to the exclusion of indigenous Bolivians from the governing of the country.
Now to the Downing Street memo. Coming on the heels of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Washington this week, momentum is building for a Congressional investigation into new proof that the Bush administration deliberately misled Congress and the UN in the months leading up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The memo, as it is being called, is minutes of a meeting of Tony Blair’s top advisers from July 2002 in which they make clear that US officials have told them that the war was a foregone conclusion and that the US had begun escalating its attacks against Iraq, essentially beginning the air war, months before UN or Congress voted on the issue. Earlier this week, Bush was finally asked about it despite the fact that the memo was published more than a month ago by the Sunday Times of London. Here is what Bush said Tuesday when he and Tony Blair held a joint press conference:
“Well, you know, I read, kind of, the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race. I’m not sure who "they dropped it out" is, but I’m not suggesting that you all dropped it out there. (LAUGHTER) And somebody said, "Well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There’s nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the prime minister was how could we do this peacefully, what could we do. And this meeting, evidently it took place in London, happened before we even went to the United Nations — or I went to the United Nations. And so it’s — look, both of us didn’t want to use our military."
President Bush speaking on Tuesday. Yesterday, Senator Ted Kennedy became the first senator to raise the issue of the Downing Street Memo in the Senate. In a statement, Kennedy said "The contents of the Downing Street Minutes confirm that the Bush Administration was determined to go to war in Iraq, regardless of whether there was any credible justification for doing so. The Administration distorted and misrepresented the intelligence in its attempt to link Saddam Hussein with the terrorists of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, and with weapons of mass destruction that Iraq did not have." Kennedy continued, "The Downing Street Minutes also confirm what has long been obvious — that the timing of the war was linked to the 2002 Congressional elections, and that the administration’s planning for post-war Iraq was incompetent in all its aspects. The current continuing crisis is a direct result of that incompetence."
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the other Massachusetts Senator, John Kerry, also addressed the issue. In a statement to the Boston Phoenix newspaper, Setti Warren said, QUOTE "Senator Kerry believes every American deserves a thorough explanation of the Downing Street memo. The Administration and the Washington Republicans who control Congress insult Americans by refusing to answer even the most basic questions raised in this memo about pre-war intelligence and planning for the aftermath of war. That’s unacceptable, especially with the lives of America’s sons and daughters on the line. John Kerry will demand answers in the Senate. Stay tuned."
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council yesterday that many of the 6,000 [six thousand] prisoners detained by U.S.-led forces in Iraq are being held in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Annan’s report read in part, "Prolonged detention without access to lawyers and courts is prohibited under international law including during states of emergency." While the Fourth Geneva Convention allows occupying forces to detain individuals, there is no provision allowing internment after an occupation has officially ended.
Iraqi rebel forces killed 4 [four] U.S. soldiers in separate incidents yesterday. In Afghanistan, Taliban forces claimed responsibility for killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding eight. The attack, using mortars to fire on a grounded helicopter, was the first of its kind in three years.
This comes as the U.S. military fell short in its recruiting goals for the fourth month in a row. The Army lowered is recruiting target for May but still came up 25 [twenty-five] percent short. Meanwhile, the divorce rate among Army officers nearly tripled between 2002 and 2004.
One of the key figures in the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004 has returned to Haiti. US assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega was in Haiti for a 24-hour visit. As he arrived, the US ambassador James Foley said Washington is working on a plan that will allow Haiti to buy more weapons. Foley said the US was finding ways to work around the 14-year-old arms embargo that the US imposed on Haiti. Human rights groups blasted the move saying the Haitian police and reconstituted army have carried out summary executions and other violence against Aristide supporters. During his time in office, Aristide disbanded the Haitian armed forces which he said had become death squads.
Ethiopian security forces shot and killed at least 22 [twenty-two] people yesterday during protests accusing the ruling party of fraud in last month’s still-inconclusive elections. Taxi drivers and shop owners went on strike yesterday, joining a protest initiated by students on Monday.
And the Senate yesterday confirmed Janice Brown to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The judicial filibuster ended in a compromise late last month, giving Bush nominees clear passage through the Senate.