Con sesión en Sucre intentan calmar protestas en Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia – A lawyer and landowner who heads the Senate was the favorite among lawmakers Wednesday to succeed President Carlos Mesa, but protesters demanded immediate elections that could give the post to a leftist Indian leader who champions their cause.
Mesa also urged Hormando Vaca Diez, the Senate leader first in line to replace him under the constitution, to step aside so that early elections could be called to defuse the political turmoil sparked by three weeks of violent street protests and road blockades.
Meanwhile, Vaca Diez, an agribusinessman from the eastern farming region of Santa Cruz, said he would call an emergency session of Congress on Thursday in the historic capital of Sucre so a new leader can be appointed to replace Mesa’s U.S.-backed free-market government.
He said the session was being moved from the traditional Congressional chambers in La Paz to the city hundreds of miles away because of security concerns.
Mesa, who said he was stepping aside for the good of the country, called for a halt to the protests while early elections can be arranged and accused Vaca Diez of putting personal aspirations above the needs of a country facing more violence.
«This is an exhortation for a country that is on the verge of civil war,» he said in a televised address late Tuesday.
Mesa survived only 19 months in office before offering to step down Monday, his government buckling after weeks of protests by a coalition of impoverished Indians, miners and union members.
The resignation — expected to be accepted by Congress on Thursday — could ultimately usher in new elections, raising the prospect of Bolivia becoming the seventh Latin American country to move to a leftist government opposed to U.S. policies in the region.
But Vaca Diez, whose traditional party MIR has been mired in corruption scandals in the past, is widely discredited among Indian and labor groups in the western highlands of La Paz where protest groups vowed they would oust him if elected.
On the streets, Bolivians worried about the transition period.
«This fight for power is bad for the country,» said Moises Delgado, a 60-year-old school principal. «I don’t think Vaca Diez will be a good choice, but we need someone because the protests are taking too much of a toll. Because of the street blockades, we have to walk long distances, there is no transport and not even enough food.»
Silvia Castillo, 18, raced to a law class Wednesday and worried about the country’s future. «Vaca Diez, no! Nobody likes him here and many really resent him. What’s going on now is so sad.»
The crisis pits Indian and labor groups from the poorer highlands, including the capital La Paz and its poor satellite city of El Alto, against the ruling class from Santa Cruz in the east and the oil-rich gas fields to the south.
Also at issue are the divides created by the U.S.-backed war on drugs: One popular opposition leader draws his support from farmers who grow coca leaf, the raw ingredient for cocaine.
Opposition leaders have said they will continue their daily protests which, coupled with road blockades, have caused shortages of food, gasoline and water in the capital and shut down public transportation and most business activity.
On Tuesday, riot police fired tear gas canisters and sent thousands of demonstrators fleeing down the cobblestone streets of the old colonial center. Miners in brown hardhats responded by blasting dynamite sticks.
Ambulances sped away with the injured and a major public hospital said it had treated 12 people. Most had been felled by tear gas and rubber bullets, but the hospital said one miner lost a hand in a dynamite explosion.
Urging Bolivians to «put an end to this craziness,» Mesa appealed for calm.
During Tuesday’s protests, the thousands of anti-government demonstrators voiced their opposition to both congressional leaders in line to succeed Mesa: Vaca Diez, and House leader Mario Cossio, who is second in line. Both hail from traditional parties that Indian leaders have vowed to drive from office.
House deputy Evo Morales, who leads a leftist party whose power base is drawn from Indian coca-leaf farmers, warned that thousands of his supporters would move to prevent either Vaca Diez or Cossio from assuming the presidency.
«We will not allow them to take power. Now is when the national majority has to govern the country,» Morales said.
A possible third-in-line, Eduardo Rodriguez, the president of the Supreme Court, enjoys wider political support and could serve as a caretaker president until early elections are held later this year.
Washington has been watching Bolivia’s unfolding political crisis with concern as Mesa’s free-market policies have fallen out of favor after failing to ease the grinding poverty that affects nearly two-thirds of Bolivians.
Many in the poor Indian majority say they prefer a candidate from a non-traditional party like Morales, an avowed admirer of Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez who has clashed frequently with Washington.
The anti-government protests have steadily increased since Bolivia’s Congress last month raised taxes on foreign oil companies developing Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second largest in South America after Venezuela.

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