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BOLIVIA
Independent government
José Antonio Aruquipa
10/27/2003
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Vice President Carlos Mesa assumes the presidency while Sánchez de Lozada flees.

After nearly a month of protests that paralyzed the country and left more than 80 dead, thousands of citizens from all walks of life took to the streets to celebrate Oct. 17 when radio and television stations confirmed the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation was read by a representative of the former president to Congress, which was meeting in emergency session to deal with the Bolivia’s worst political crisis in its 21-year-old democracy.

"This is an ill-fated precedent for Bolivia’s democracy and that of the continent," said Sánchez de Lozada’s letter in which he put his resignation "before the consideration of Congress." He warned that the solution of the nation’s problems would not be that easy and that his exit would not resolve the crisis.

Sánchez de Lozada, a 73-year-old mining businessman with a self-declared fortune of US$50mn who lived most of his life in the United States, left Bolivia the same day for Miami, leaving behind a country engulfed in poverty and on the brink of political disintegration.

As established by the Constitution, Vice President Carlos Mesa, a 50-year-old journalist and historian, assumed the responsibility of forming an emergency government and attending to an interminable list of social demands in South America’s poorest country.

Mesa committed himself to be "the country’s No. 1 servant," paid homage to "the fallen" in the "gas war" in El Alto and announced an all-out fight against corruption.

The new president asked Congress to consider the possibility of a government of "historic transition" and announced that he would call a binding referendum so that Bolivians could decide what should be done with the project to export gas. He also pledged to make viable the modification of the Hydrocarbons Law and meet the demand for a Constituent Assembly within the existing legal framework.

Mesa guaranteed that his government would maintain a strict respect for life. "We are betting on our future," he said, while asking the country and Congress for support in forming a Cabinet of "notable personalities without political party affiliation."

"We are obliged to satisfy the legitimate demand" of the people "to be first class citizens in a country of equals."

Mesa was sworn in before a Congress gathered in emergency session and before a country in upheaval over military repression, shortages of goods and instability.

The massive protests against the sale of gas—which began peacefully on Sept. 19 (LP, Oct. 8, 2003)—were met with violent repression.

On Oct. 12, in El Alto –a sprawling city perched above La Paz with some 500,000 residents, most of whom are poor, marginalized Aymara Indians –police and soldiers escorting gasoline tanks through the blockaded streets opened fire indiscriminately against protesters armed with only sticks and rocks. Twenty-eight people died that day, including one soldier who refused to open fire on the protesters and was shot by his superior.

The "gas war" reflects the country’s deep poverty. In the last three years, the number of poor in Bolivia has increased by 513,000. Currently, 5.6 million of Bolivia’s 8 million citizens live in poverty.

The violent response led to a wider citizen protest asking for the president’s resignation, while Sánchez de Lozada became increasingly isolated. After the massacre in El Alto, Mesa announced his resignation from the Cabinet as had been recommended to him by ministers and party leaders allied with the government.

Sánchez de Lozada –who had governed the country from 1993 to 1997 – put up a tough fight before leaving power. His downfall began on Feb. 12 and 13 when a civilian and police protest against a plan to directly tax salaries of 500,000 employees to cover the fiscal deficit ended in an armed confrontation in Plazo Murillo. Massive protests were put down by military sharpshooters who killed 31 and wounded 200 (LP, Feb. 26, 2003). Although Mesa has received the support of hundreds of thousands of Bolivians, the citizen support does not provide a guarantee of stability for this independent president who in Congress will face a mine field of political pressures from eight parties, five of which are rightist and three of which represent hard-line indigenous socialism.

 

Evo Morales, leader of the main opposition party Movement to Socialism, announced a "truce" and "constructive opposition," although several former official party congressmen have predicted that Mesa will have a weak government lacking political support.

"An era of instability has begun," warned Senator Hugo Carvajal of the Leftist Revolutionary Movement while Oscar Sandoval of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement said political parties are the "the only instrument that guarantees governance." He said that Mesa, by announcing that his government will be made up of "notable personalities" without party militancy "is condemned to have an administration affected by the inability to govern."

Although Mesa’s independence gives him an advantage with the public in one of the countries with the highest indicators of poverty and corruption in the world, forming an executive branch free of the intervention of political parties appears to be a nearly impossible task for the brief period that politicians give the current transitional government.

"The parceling out of public positions carried out by the parties over the last several years has created a web of bureaucrats who are faithful to their parties and will be difficult to remove," said political analyst Jimena Costa. "This is the internal enemy that represents the biggest obstacle for a government that apparently has a commitment to the country."

In his first press conference, Mesa acknowledged that the secret of his success or failure would depend on his relation with and the attitude of the parties with parliamentary representation in his government. This is the "crux of the problem," he said.

 


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