Amid deadly violence, Bolivians call for change
By BY LUIS BOLIVAR AND KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder News Service
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Tanks formed an iron curtain in front of Bolivia's
presidential palace Thursday as a second day of violent protests swept
nation and calls grew for President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign.
The violence was sparked by a clash between police and soldiers
after most of La Paz's 7,000 police officers walked off the job and led
Wednesday. They were joined by citizens angry over an unpopular income tax proposal.
Over the two days, 22 people were killed, including at least
nine police officers, and 102 were injured, according to Eduardo Chavez,
director of La Paz's
General Hospital, where most of the casualties were treated.
Most of the disturbances Thursday were confined to the capital. Later in the day calm prevailed as striking police officers returned to their posts.
In a nationally televised speech Thursday night, Sánchez
de Lozada expressed his condolences to the families of the dead and called
on citizens to resolve
their problems through dialogue and not through violence.
''Democracy is not perfect. God knows it is not,'' Sánchez
de Lozada said. ``Hopefully together we can find solutions to our grave
problems, but we'll never
find them through violence, looting and destruction.''
The 72-year-old Sánchez de Lozada, known by his nickname Goni, made it clear he would not resign.
However, the prospect for more turmoil that could threaten political stability remained high, analysts said.
''The worst-case scenario has played out and it's unlikely to
get any better,'' said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American
and Caribbean Center at
Florida International University in Miami-Dade. ``This is the biggest challenge Bolivia's democracy has faced in 20 years. I don't think the protests will stop
until [the opposition] gets the president to step down.''
Bolivian government officials disputed the gloomy outlook.
''Order has been restored,'' Carlos Sánchez-Berzain, the
minister of presidency, a position similar to chief of staff, told The
Herald by telephone. ``What
happened here had no political aspects tied to it. There is no reason for the president to resign.''
As police worked to restore order in La Paz, disturbances erupted
in other parts of the country, where officers had also left their posts.
155 miles southeast of La Paz, rioters set fires in the street and shut down public transportation throughout the city.
Leading the opposition effort is Evo Morales, who came close
to winning the presidency last year and whose Movement to Socialism Party
about a third of Congress.
Morales champions poor, mostly indigenous farmers who grow coca, the plant from which cocaine is made.
In a heated address to demonstrators in La Paz's Plaza de San Francisco on Thursday, Morales called for nationwide highway blockages and civil unrest.
''We will not allow these deaths to go unpunished, we will not
allow our natural resources to leave the country, we seek the resignation
of the president of
the republic,'' Morales told thousands of supporters.
Morales, who represents cocaleros, wants an end to forced eradication
of coca in the Chapare, a New Jersey-sized swath of tropical Bolivia where
not native but was brought by drug traffickers.
Campaigning for president last year, Morales promised to eject
the Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia if elected and to allow
coca to be freely
Bolivia's crackdown on illicit coca is believed to have taken more than $200 million annually out of the economy of South America's poorest nation.
The 12 percent tax proposal that drove people into the streets,
and was withdrawn by the president in a bid for calm, affected anyone who
times more than the monthly minimum wage of $58.
The proposal, which requires congressional approval, was part of an economic package to help boost an ailing economy.
Bolivia, which has been in a recession for the past four years
and relies heavily on interna-tional aid, has a deficit of 8.6 percent
of GDP, ''which means the
country is bankrupt,'' Gamarra said.
The International Monetary Fund has imposed a three-point reduction,
and raising taxes is the most efficient method to meet that requirement
resorting to additional foreign borrowing, Gamarra said.
Herald staff writer Nancy San Martin contributed to this report.
Bolívar reported from La Paz and Hall from Rio de Janeiro.