Bolivian president submits resignation

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation to Congress on Monday after warning that a wave of protests against his 15-month-old government may soon leave Bolivia’s largest cities isolated by road blockades.

Legislators could decide as early at Tuesday whether to accept the resignation, which followed several days of street protests calling for a privatized water company to immediately stop operating and demanding higher taxes on oil companies.

“I cannot continue to govern with threats that strangle the country,” Mesa wrote in his letter, referring to plans announced by opposition leader Evo Morales to stage a nationwide blockade of roads, a traditional form of protest in Bolivia.

Should the chamber accept Mesa’s resignation, his successor according to the constitution would be Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez. The next presidential election is set for June 2007, but some politicians have suggested it may be held earlier as a result of the recent turmoil.

Predecessor encountered same fate
Mesa took office in October 2003, succeeding President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was also forced to resign in the wake of street protests. That unrest took the lives of at least 56 people. Mesa has ruled as an independent because he is not a member of a political party.

His presidency also has been weakened by constant street protests, including a strong campaign for regional autonomy by Bolivia’s wealthiest province, protests demanding lower fuel prices and calls for increases in taxes levied on foreign oil companies.

The protests have forced Mesa to repeatedly make concessions to a variety of labor, indigenous and social groups.

Finally, in his resignation letter, he said he cannot continue to govern facing “irrational demands that threaten to set everything on fire.”

Recent protests have demanded the immediate end of operations of the French-owned water utility that supplies La Paz and the neighboring city of El Alto and an increase of tax on the sales of private oil companies from 18 percent to 50 percent.

Water as political issue
Critics accuse the water company of failing to serve the city’s poorer neighborhoods, a highly charged political issue in Bolivia that has echoed throughout South America, where governments have experimented with privatizing former state services to attract foreign investment — bringing a backlash from the poor.

Following a previous protest, the Bolivian government rescinded a contract with the company, Aguas del Illimani, a branch of Lyonnaise des Eaux of France, but agreed to a gradual phase out of its operations to avoid suspending the service.

Ordering the utility to immediately hand over control of the waterworks would force the government to pay a steep breach of contract fine, officials said.

Regarding the oil tax, Mesa said Sunday in a speech that any increase would be opposed by the “international community.” An aide clarified Monday that the European Union and United States could cut assistance if the tax was raised.

At the same time, Mesa said he was unwilling to use force to stop the protests.

Mesa: Roadblocks could isolate cities
He warned that roadblocks would quickly isolate Bolivia’s largest cities, and officials said shortages of food, fuel and other essential items would be inevitable. He also said he would not resort to soldiers or the police to clear the roads, because that would leave victims.

Presidential chief of Staff Jose Galindo carried the resignation letter to the Congress building across the street from the presidential palace, which was surrounded by hundreds of people who gathered in support of the president. Galindo said the resignation was “a painful decision made by the president.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher voiced support for Mesa and noted that his fate is in the hands of the Bolivian Congress.

“We expect that the current political crisis will be resolved in a peaceful and democratic manner consistent with the Bolivian constitution,” he said. “We call upon the political leaders of Bolivia to work together to reach a national consensus in favor of a more stable and prosperous Bolivia.”

Vote's outcome unclear
Mesa had announced his decision Sunday night in a surprise address to the nation.

The outcome of a vote in Congress on Mesa’s resignation is unclear. Even opposition leader Morales, who had called for the roadblocks, did not immediately support Mesa’s departure. He said his party, the Movement toward Socialism, will meet to decide how to vote.

But Mirtha Quevedo, leader of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, another major party, said parliament would support the resignation.