Wednesday, June 8, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia remained in the political lurch yesterday, caught between a president who desires to step down and widespread protests grinding South America’s poorest nation to a halt.

President Carlos Mesa, who has submitted his resignation, warned Bolivians their country is on the brink of “civil war” and asked protesters to end their siege on the nation.

So far, the protests have not compared in violence or intensity to those that forced former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from office in October 2003, though they mirror each other regarding the issues driving them.

Thousands arriving at the capital from all over the country are calling for nationalization of the country’s lucrative natural-gas industry.

Foreign companies like Brazil’s Petrobras and British Petroleum, threatened by the call, already have felt the pinch of protesters’ demands when Mr. Mesa gave in and signed a bill last month raising taxes and tariffs on foreign companies to 50 percent of earnings, up from 18 percent.

The bill’s signing did not end the protests, as Mr. Mesa hoped; rather, it appeared to embolden the unions, laborers and Indian populations flooding the streets.

Now, in addition to their demands on Bolivia’s gas, protesters are calling for a complete rewrite to the constitution giving the nation’s Indian population greater political representation.

They also are condemning a call from several eastern provinces, where much of the country’s wealth and gas reserves are concentrated, for greater autonomy.

In a nationally televised appeal, Mr. Mesa said Bolivia is venturing dangerously close to the brink of self-destruction and called for presidential elections as soon as possible.

“The country cannot continue playing with the possibility of splitting into a thousand pieces,” said Mr. Mesa. “The only solution for Bolivia is an immediate electoral process.”

Congress is scheduled to meet today to decide whether to accept the president’s resignation. Though many analysts expect they will let the president go, lawmakers did turn down Mr. Mesa’s offer to quit during similar protests in March.

Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez is next in line to succeed Mr. Mesa.

However, the president has asked Mr. Vaca Diez not to accept the post for the good of the country and to back his call for elections. The senator is particularly unpopular with protesters.

The election issue is solely in the hands of Bolivia’s Supreme Court, the only government body capable of ordering a vote.

Mr. Mesa’s term expires in 2007. Any lawmaker accepting the position would be expected to serve until then.

Demonstrators, who have crippled the country and caused shortages in both fuel and basic food products, have pledged to keep protesting until their demands are met.

“There will be more conflicts,” said 40-year-old Adolfo Colque, while marching through the streets with a coalition of Bolivian labor unions.

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