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Bolivia: On the Verge of Bloodbath?

HeadlineJun 09, 2005

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.

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