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Bolivian President Offers His Resignation

Protests Threaten To Cripple Nation

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A11

SANTIAGO, Chile, March 7 -- Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, facing massive protests that threaten to cripple a nation already suffering from widespread discord, submitted his resignation letter Monday to the nation's Congress.

Mesa has faced escalating protests in recent weeks, many spurred by an indigenous population angry over government fuel policies. Demonstrators on Saturday threatened to shut down airports and expand nationwide roadblocks. On Monday, supporters and opponents of Mesa clashed in the streets of La Paz, the capital.

Carlos Mesa has been president for 17 months.

"I cannot continue to govern besieged by a national blockade that strangles the country," Mesa, 51, wrote in his resignation letter, according to news service reports. The legislature was expected to respond to his offer Tuesday.

Mesa's government has been besieged by challenges including the roadblocks, which may soon isolate Bolivia's major cities. Last month, the country's richest province called for regional autonomy. On Friday, protesters shut down the city of El Alto in a strike over a privatized water and sewer company now owned by a French firm. Demonstrators charge that the company has failed to serve the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Last weekend, angry coca growers threatened to occupy the country's oil fields in a call for heftier taxes on multinational oil companies. The mostly indigenous growers have coalesced behind opposition congressman Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party.

"It is possible that in three of four days the main cities, especially La Paz, won't have any fuel, supplies or food," Mesa said in a speech Sunday, news services reported.

Bolivia's previous president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was forced from office 17 months ago after deadly riots erupted over fuel policies that now are bedeviling Mesa. Bolivia has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in South America, and the government sparked mass protests when it sought to export it through neighboring Chile, which has long been a rival.

Some analysts said they believe Mesa's resignation is a gamble to put his opponents on the defensive. If opponents in Congress accept the offer, they could be seen as disrupting an already turbulent nation. If they reject the resignation, Mesa could emerge with a rare mandate within the fractious government.

"The decision is in the hands of Congress, and this is a Congress without unity," Carlos Toranzos, a political analyst, said in a telephone interview from La Paz. "It is a very difficult and uncertain time for Bolivia now."

If lawmakers accept Mesa's resignation, the Senate chairman would become president. Congress could also choose an interim leader or call for elections before 2007.

In his speech Sunday, Mesa blamed the turmoil on Morales, who lost a bid for president in 2002. He is an outspoken opponent of U.S.-led efforts to eradicate the cultivation of coca leaves, which can be used for making cocaine. Morales is also calling for strong state intervention in natural gas policies.

John M. Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the Bush administration has generally supported Mesa.

"The U.S. recognizes that he is walking a tightrope on so many different issues, so the question has become: If he falls, what comes next?" Walsh said in a telephone interview from Washington. The concern among U.S. officials, he said, is that "what comes next could be Evo Morales."

Mesa, a former historian and journalist, wrote a book titled, "Bolivian Presidents: Between Ballot Boxes and Rifles." If the upheaval surrounding his presidency persists, it could throw the country's economy into a tailspin, economists said.

"The protests do a huge amount of economic damage," said Gonzalo Chavez, an economist at the Catholic University in La Paz. "We don't have a lot of highways, so if you block the route between Santa Cruz and La Paz, it's very serious."

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