President Mesa Resigns: Bolivia’s Future Uncertain, Chaos Continues (6/07/05)

Over three weeks of grueling social conflict in La Paz, the extension of road blockades and strikes throughout the nation provoked increasing criticism of the executive’s incapacity to meet growing, and at times conflicting demands from diverse sectors. In response, President Mesa resigned on June 6 during a speech to the nation. Mesa said that he had done his best and asked for forgiveness if he shared responsibility for the profound political crisis that grips the nation. He begged the Bolivian public to engage in dialogue to resolve the conflict. According to the Bolivian constitution, the nation’s congress must meet and accept the resignation. Although the Evo Morales’s MAS party and other social sectors had asked that Mesa step down, resignation was not a key demand of any group. As a result, it provides no solution to the profound political and institutional crisis that grips South America’s poorest nation. With no clear successor with sufficient popular support to legitimately enact policy, Bolivia’s future has become increasing uncertain.

In spite of growing pressure and protests that paralyzed the city of La Paz and the rest of the nation, the congress did not approve protestors’ demands for a Constitutional Assembly and a referendum on greater regional autonomy. In response, Mesa passed Supreme Decrees to enact both measures in a last ditch effort to pacify the nation. Instead, protests multiplied exponentially. The general rejection of Mesa’s supreme decree is not surprising in the current context. Ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had also promised to carry out the Constitutional Assembly two days before he resigned— a desperate attempt to stem protests that he had met with violent repression.

Admirably, Mesa did not order the use of lethal force against protestors, and there have been no casualties during the current conflict. Mesa’s two quickly reneged-upon resignation threats in May eroded his credibility to such an extent that his announcement had only limited impact.In spite of repeated attempts to appease groups on all sides, Mesa had largely become irrelevant in the spiraling crisis, and protesting sectors felt that he no longer has the authority or the strength to enforce his decrees without congressional backing. Hard-line opposition criticized Mesa precisely for not calling out the armed forces to repress marchers. Unable to meet conflicting and irreconcilable demands, Mesa’s found it increasingly difficult to act

The president’s growing insecurity and indecision led him to frequently modify his stances. In spite of his rejection of the use of force against Bolivian citizens, on May 31, he stated that the armed forces were merely carrying out their constitutional mandate in September and October 2003, when they killed at least sixty civilians during protests. He added that he supported trials of these cases in the military tribunal, in violation of Bolivian and international law. Human rights trials in these courts have impeded prosecution in civilian courts and guaranteed impunity for human rights violations. Ironically, in his inaugural address, Carlos Mesa promised full investigations and sanctions of those responsible for the atrocities that took place during "Black October." These comments infuriated protesting sectors who had suffered repression in 2003 and the National Police, who had born the brunt of retaliation by protestors. One unit even threatened to mutiny. Mesa quickly issued a statement praising the police force to diffuse tensions.

Unfortunately, efforts by the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Permanent Human Rights Assembly to convoke dialogue have repeatedly failed. The Catholic Church has successfully initiated mediation efforts, but it is unclear how this process will progress.

Mesa stated that he will remain in office until a congressional session confirms his resignation. It remains unclear when or where the legislature will meet, and what the outcome will be. Technically, they could reject Mesa’s resignation. Protesting sectors reject the inauguration of traditional party members, Hormando Vaca Diez (president of the Senate) or Mario Cossio (head of the Chamber of Deputies) as stipulated by the Bolivian constitution. If neither man accepts the post, the head of the Supreme Court could take office. In any case, it is probable that the next Bolivian president will call for early elections. Yet, no clear political alternative exists to replace Mesa, who incredibly simultaneously at one time maintained the support of the U.S government and coca grower Evo Morales’s party. Any successor will face the same insurmountable challenges that paralyzed Mesa and the irreconcilable pressures of international donors, multinational corporations, an unforgiving oligarchy and an impoverished, disenfranchised majority, tired of centuries of marginalization.

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