- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivian President Carlos Mesa late yesterday withdrew his threat to resign, defying warnings by indigenous leaders of a new wave of street protests that would paralyze the impoverished country.

The Bolivian leader walked through La Paz’s main square, then told a dramatic late-night session of Congress that he would stay in office.

“We have been given a new opportunity. The country is clamoring for us to work together,” Mr. Mesa told Congress.

“I want Bolivians to support their president,” he was reported by Reuters news agency as telling the legislature.

Parliament had been expected to reject the president’s resignation, which he had announced two days earlier as nationwide anti-government protests paralyzed much of the Andean nation. But the protests were faltering.

The surprising turn of events was a major political victory for the embattled leader and a setback for the nation’s combative indigenous-based movements, which had staged street protests and highway blockades.

“The presidency of Carlos Mesa is a necessary evil,” Roberto de la Cruz, an indigenous leader in El Alto, told local television before the announced withdrawal of the resignation.

“If he resigns, it would be disastrous for our social movements. I don’t think [Congress] will accept it.”

“This is blackmail,” said Evo Morales, head of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and a leader of some recent protests said, also before the announced change of mind.

“Nobody is asking for him to resign. With this resignation, he simply wants to distract the population so as to not pass a new hydrocarbons law that responds to the spirit of what the Bolivian people have proposed,” he said at a press conference.

Most of the road blockades and demonstrations began after the lower house of parliament on Thursday passed legislation maintaining the 18 percent royalty that foreign companies must pay to extract oil and gas.

The demonstrators are demanding that this royalty be raised to 50 percent. Mr. Mesa argues that such an increase would drive away investors.

“We need cash from outside,” Mr. Mesa said in a speech in which he railed against Mr. Morales, a presidential hopeful whom Washington opposes because of his criticism of the U.S.-led war on drugs.

“In the moment when a single petroleum company questions the sincerity of the hydrocarbons law passed by Bolivia, the Congress of the United States can make it impossible to carry out its aid programs in Bolivia. The European Union can consider freezing support to our country,” Mr. Mesa said.

The United States and Mexico yesterday released a statement as co-presidents of the so-called Bolivia Support Group, which comprises 19 countries and seven international organizations.

They said they “fully support the democratic, constitutional government of Bolivia” led by Mr. Mesa.

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