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Bolivian President Mesa Resigns amidst mass protests

Jim Shultz, Democracy Centre (based in Bolivia and San Fransisco)

President MesaTonight Bolivian President Carlos Mesa gave an address to the nation and announced that he is resigning. The immediate political future of the country is unknown.

Mesa has threatened resignation twice before in recent months but those previous threats were generally viewed as a political ploy, stunts by a former TV newsman to cast a shadow of drama over events and lure support behind him. Tonight Bolivia needs no more drama than it has on the natural. This time, I believe, Mesa’s resignation is real.

"This is as far as I can go," Mesa told Bolivians. "It is my decision as president to present my resignation as President of the Republic."

What does this mean? Here are the three big questions:

1. Will the Bolivian Congress accept the resignation?

Mesa remains Bolivia’s President until the national Congress formally votes to accept his resignation. That could happen Tuesday, assuming that Congress meets. Congress has been prevented from meeting for nearly a week owing to the combination of protesters blocking their way and members from Santa Cruz refusing to come to La Paz. Anything is possible. I can imagine a good portion of Congress, the socialist MAS party included, refusing the resignation until they are satisfied with the terms of succession (see below). On the other hand, Congress may just decide that if they guys wants to go it is time for him to go.

2. Who succeeds Mesa?

Assuming that Congress formally accepts Mesa’s resignation, who replaces him? The line of succession begins with Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, a Santa Cruz politician who has called on Mesa several times in recent months to “start governing”, shorthand here for sending out the military to deal with protesters. Next in line is the little-known lower house President Mario Cossío. Evo Morales of the MAS and other protest leaders have called on all three political leaders to resign, which would leave the Presidency temporarily in the hands of the President of the Supreme Court and constitutionally trigger new national elections.

3. How will the protest movements react?

The buzz over the weekend here was about a Catholic Church brokered deal in which the government would resign en masse and trigger new elections. Some evidently believed that new elections, in themselves, would provide enough hope for political change to bring the current wave of protests over gas export to a close. That was never a very realistic hope.

The issue in the streets is not who is President; it is who controls the nation’s oil and gas, along with calls for rewriting the Constitution through a national constituent assembly. A snap election in October will be run through the same political rules that people are in the streets protesting against. I don’t see how new elections satisfies anyone.

If the voices in the street spoke to the country’s national leaders in the language of my homestate of California, the message might be, “What part of we want to take back the oil and rewrite the constitution didn’t you understand?”

There is a saying here in Bolivia, Hasta las ultimas consequencias! Literally translated it means, until the final consequences. Politically translated it means, once the people have mobilized past a certain point there is no turning back. The people who are in the streets in La Paz, who are piling up rocks by the kilometer to block roads in and out of Cochabamba, poor farmers who took over a Shell/Enron pumping station earlier today – I don’t see them backing down. Not a Presidential resignation, not a promise of new elections, not even a state of martial law will send them quietly home.

I also don’t want to give readers a false sense of the story here. This is not October 2003 when the country was united broadly in the demand that President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resign. While these protests are fueled by a real intensity on the part of the people engaged in them, a good portion of the Bolivians I talk to are just getting increasingly angry by the inconvenience of it all and the instability they see ahead. I hear more and more twenty somethings talking about leaving. “Bolivia will always be a third world country.” “I don’t see a future for myself here.”

Bolivia tonight is a deeply divided nation with a political course ahead that is very difficult to see.


June 2005


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