Bolivian president seeks calm
Bolivia's leader, Carlos Mesa, unveils a number of economic measures as indigenous and labor leaders threaten unrest.
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder News Service
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Appealing for calm and asking for sacrifice, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa on Sunday unveiled austerity measures designed to right a listing ship of state as average Bolivians braced for potential violence and perhaps the fall of another leader.
Mesa's prerecorded television address to the Andean nation came
as radical leaders of labor and indigenous groups threatened a return to
the violence that left at least
56 dead and toppled former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October. Mesa, an apolitical television commentator, was his vice president and assumed the
presidency warning he would step aside if any more blood is shed.
With 191 coups or revolutions in its 178 years as a republic,
Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America and a tinderbox. The slightest
provocation, real or perceived,
may push the country over the edge and into new social unrest. In La Paz over the weekend, residents stocked up on food, water and cooking gas amid fears that
violence may come in days.
In the Sunday night speech, Mesa backed away from expected immediate
fuel tax hikes and an end to subsidized cooking gas for the poor. Instead,
he would free
government-controlled prices over time, allowing for a gradual price hike of up to 6 percent depending on domestic and international price factors.
Mesa announced an across-the-board 5 percent cut in government
spending to help close a $414 million deficit. He would raise $95 million
with an 18 percent tax on oil
companies and another $100 million if Congress approves his plan to tax all financial transactions in Bolivia. And he would save $35 million with austerity measures such as reducing his salary by 10 percent and that of Congress by 5 percent.
Bolivian lawmakers on salary alone make more than $2,000 month
while the majority of the poor earn a basic monthly wage of about $50-$60.
Mesa promised to
eliminate congressional perks that inflate salaries as high as $5,000 a month.
Mesa unveiled 23 decrees and three reforms needing congressional
authorization. He also promised to reserve government purchases of up to
$1.1 million for Bolivian
companies ''using it as an instrument for growth.'' That measure appears designed to deflect attention from the planned export of Bolivia's vast and untapped natural
The previous government fell because of nationalist outrage over
a $6 billion pipeline project to export natural gas out of Bolivia to the
United States through Chile, the
hated neighbor that took landlocked Bolivia's coastline in a 19th century war. Mesa also announced he would revoke a controversial 1997 law that opened up the oil and gas sector and send to Congress on Tuesday a new hydrocarbons proposal to help the poor country tap its rich underground wealth.
Even before Mesa's address, opponents who had granted him a three-month grace period were threatening new unrest.
''More than 100 days have passed and there are no signs of change.
After 100 days we can say he is the face of neocolonization, he has shown
continuity'' with the
disgraced previous government, said Roberto de la Cruz, an Aymara Indian and president of the Regional Workers Union (COR), a radical workers's group in El Alto.
El Alto saw the worst of last year's violence, and its urban
poor are angry and appear itching for another fight. De la Cruz and his
group were key reasons the
government fell in October. In an exclusive interview in a home, he promised new protests soon to bring down Mesa, close the Congress and change the so-called
neoliberal economic system espoused by the United States.
''We are recruiting leaders to organize a popular, pacific but
confrontational rebellion,'' he said, declining to provide a date certain
but denying published reports that his
followers are taking up arms. ''We don't need weapons to defeat neoliberalism!'' The measures won't satisfy Bolivia's most prominent native leader, Evo Morales, who
nearly won the presidency in 2002. A day before the speech, he vowed that from the legislature, his Movement to Socialism Party (MAS) would force deeper cuts in
public salaries to show solidarity with the poor.
In a running daylong interview as he traveled through Bolivia's tropics, Morales made it clear he wants Mesa to stay in power, at least long enough as the MAS can make expected huge gains in municipal elections nationwide in December.
''For questions of stability, it is important that Mesa stays,''
said Morales, who has won legitimacy through the ballots and sees it threatened
by groups more radical than
his. Bolivia's problems threaten to become regional problems.
Neighboring Peru and Ecuador have similar dynamics where majority
indigenous groups are angry with their governments fragile. The United
States has much at stake
The region is the world's biggest supplier of coca, the plant from which cocaine is made. U.S. antinarcotics aid and alternative development programs in the region have exceeded $1 billion in the past decade, but efforts are being undone by political instability in the region.
Before addressing his nation Sunday night, President Mesa had
been out of view for four days, negotiating with politicians and interest
groups. He agreed to be
interviewed, then canceled because of the sensitivity of his Sunday night speech and the country's tense social situation.