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BOLIVIA
Mesa remains in power
José Antonio Aruquipa
3/24/2005
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After tendering his resignation and calling for early eelections, Mesa decides to remain in the presidency.

In less than 10 days, Bolivia’s Congress rejected two requests by President Carlos Mesa to cut short his term before the end of his constitutional mandate in 2007.

On March 6, in a message to the nation, Mesa announced his resignation amidst a wave of protests and roadblocks by groups calling for the government to rescind the privatization contract of the Aguas del Illimani water company and to approve a new Hydrocarbons Law that would require oil firms operating in the country to pay higher.

Nine days later, on March 15, Mesa asked Congress to move forward general elections to next Aug. 28.

The legislative branch rejected both initiatives and ratified Mesa in his post, urging him to make good on his oath to uphold the Constitution.

New Hydrocarbons Law

Mesa did not insist on his request and opted to stay in the post when deputy Evo Morales, leader of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), temporarily suspended the roadblocks on March 16 after the Chamber of Deputies passed the new Hydrocarbons Law that raises royalties to 18 percent and includes a 32 percent tax on the extraction of natural gas and petroleum.

Nevertheless, Mesa warned that some of the articles of the new law —which still must be debated in the Senate— violates the juridical security of the 15 oil companies operating in the country.

The version approved by the Chamber of Deputies requires the company to sign new contracts, grants indigenous peoples the power to suspend any hydrocarbons exploration or extraction in their territories and imposes new tax rules.

These reforms, the president said, give the law an "irrational" character and puts the country in danger of trade and other sanctions by the international community, which has been calling for contracts with the oil companies based on consensus.

These arguments failed to convince Morales, who claims Bolivia must "recover" its hydrocarbons and who virtually forced Mesa to present his resignation on March 6 with roadblocks that caused shortages and losses in three of the country’s nine departments.

"Blackmail"

Morales —who until not long ago had been supporting Mesa— called Mesa’s decision to resign "blackmail" designed to "to stop the social movements that are seeking a change from the neo-liberal model and to recover the hydrocarbons from the transnationals.

"The call for elections by the president is aimed at postponing the profound changes to the neo-liberal model and the political system," Morales said after Congress declared "unacceptable" his call for early elections. "The president should fulfill the mandate of the people."

Late on March 17, Mesa said he would stay in the post to avoid "the sensation of abandonment" which he said Bolivian citizens felt and pledged "before the country and the world" to resume his responsibility to govern Bolivia.

But Mesa will not only have to deal with the blockages by Morales and the threats by the petroleum companies. The civic leaders of Santa Cruz, the mot populated and richest department in Bolivia, have warned that they will hold a de facto referendum on departmental autonomy —a measure initially promised by Mesa for June of this year.

Pressures from United States

In addition, Mesa must face the pressures of the United States to sign an accord on the immunity of its citizens before the International Criminal Court, a concession which is opposed by MAS and human rights activists. Another pending issue is the signing of a free trade accord with the US, which is rejected by the micro-enterprises and social movements.

According to his opponents, Mesa should begin to assume his responsibilities as president. Enrique Urquidi, who heads the congressional faction of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-2003), asked the president to stay on in his post in spite of the social conflicts.

"Being president is not just about receiving applause, he cannot govern with so much indecision," he said.

The president of the National Businessmen’s Confederation Roberto Mustafá expressed doubts about whether Mesa would continue.

"It is clear that uncertainty is negative, but we ask ourselves how he is going to deal with things from here on in," he said.


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