Bolivia's political tug of war

President Carlos Mesa tendered his resignation to Congress Monday.

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, who built a career as a charismatic television journalist, likes to say that he's not a politician. And after just 17 months in power, his political career may already be over.

Following months of protests around the country over a vast range of issues, Mr. Mesa submitted his resignation Monday. Congress must vote on whether to accept Mesa's resignation, but with most members of Congress away from La Paz - and the capital's only airport effectively cut off due to street protests - it is not clear when that vote will actually take place.

Since early January, this Andean nation of 8 million has been plagued by recurring protests over fuel prices, the power of the central government, and the role of multinational companies in the economy. Mesa's announcement may be one last gamble to try to rein in these forces.

"Mesa has been obsessed with political survival over defining a clear political agenda," says Roberto Laserna, a sociologist and president of the Millennium Institute, based in Cochabamba. "He has simply reacted to pressure from all sides in order to keep power, but he's reaching his limits."

Since the 1980s, Bolivia has generally followed pro-US economic policies, selling off large state enterprises and taming inflation, but the benefits of this approach haven't been felt by the country's majority. The country remains extremely poor, with nearly half the population living on less than $2 per day, and is heavily dependent on aid from the US and other nations.

Regardless of how Congress votes, the forces that led to Mesa's dramatic decision are making the country increasingly difficult to govern by any single individual or political party. Bolivia is cleaving between the poorer, indigenous-dominated highlands near La Paz and the more business-oriented eastern lowlands centered in the city of Santa Cruz.

Mesa was Bolivia's vice president in October 2003, when bloody battles between the military and civilian protesters left at least 60 dead and forced the resignation and exile of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. As president, Mesa has sworn not to use violence to quell internal protests.

In Santa Cruz, community leaders have been frustrated by rising fuel prices and the government's failure to promote international investment into the region's natural-gas reserves, the second-largest in South America. Their demands for less oversight by the central government brought tens of thousands into the streets in January and forced Mesa to propose a national referendum on autonomy to take place later this year.

At the same time, protests in El Alto, a sprawling city of nearly 1 million overlooking La Paz, have taken a decidedly antiglobalization stance. In January, leaders demanded the cancellation of a contract with the French company, AISA, that provides the city's water and sewage lines.

The government agreed to end the contract, but protesters were incensed over a compromise that would allow AISA to maintain a minority share in the caretaker company and demanded that AISA be expelled from Bolivia immediately. The government, balking at the $60 million fine it would be forced to pay for breach of contract, refused, and city leaders last Wednesday began an "indefinite strike" that isolated the capital from the rest of the country.

Evo Morales, head of the country's Movement Toward Socialism party and a rival to Mesa, declared Mesa's decision to resign to be an act of "blackmail," adding, "This is a desperate display of [Mesa's] inability to resolve the social demands of the country."

Early Monday, supporters of Mesa began gathering in La Paz. Rumors spread that some protest leaders in and around La Paz would now throw their support back to Mesa. Their motivation? With no vice president, power would be transferred from Mesa to Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, a representative from Santa Cruz.

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