Popular rebellion's death toll now exceeds 70. Dozens of tanks ring Bolivia's presidential palace. Washington supports conservative President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
Tens of thousands of protesters reached Tuesday Bolivia's Capital, La Paz, with only one purpose: to oust conservative President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who stands firm in office despite weeks of a popular revolt in which at least 70 people have been killed. Indigenous and labor leaders have called for more strikes, roadblocks and demonstrations against Sanchez de Lozada's pro-US and free market policies that have left over 30 per cent of the population unemployed and more than 70 per cent living in poverty in South America's poorest nation.
Tanks ring the Spanish styled La Paz presidential palace, as Indian farmers and workers besiege the capital with road blocks. Food shortages, looting and deadly clashes between the police and protesters make for a sad picture. As during the times Spanish colonial rule, a handful of white Europeans control a country populated by Indians and its natural resources. That is the case of Sanchez de Lozada, who is not only the President, but also one of the richest men of the country.
This critical social situation explains the latest round of protests, triggered by a government plan to export natural gas to the US. The president suspended the gas export project yesterday but protest leaders say the gesture has come too late to save his government.
Now, the opposition wants Sanchez de Lozada's resignation, but the country's leader, elected for the second time with 23 per cent of the votes in 2002, refuses to step down. As such, he denounced an internationally financed campaign to interrupt Bolivia’s democracy. "The international community and the United States will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means," the US State Department said.
The Bush administration supports Sanchez de Lozada because Bolivia has successfully stabilized its economy and reduced drug cultivation. But violence has remained a sporadic feature of its politics, partly due to deep social divisions and marginalization of the country's majority indigenous population. Coca eradication programs leaves farmers without incomes, having no other way earn income.
However, Latin American countries took a different position on the issue, including Bolivian partners in Mercosur, which also includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. In an official statement, Argentina's Foreign Ministry said Buenos Aires would support the democratic decision of the Bolivian people. The declaration avoids any explicit mention President Sanchez de Lozada.
At the same time, the Uruguayan Senate, speaking on behalf of the Mercosur Permanent Political Consultation Forum, admitted that the South American block would support a "constitutional outcome" to the institutional crisis. In New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged restraint and dialogue as said he was "gravely concerned" about the situation.
Internally, Sanchez de Lozada's scenario is even more desperate. Ruling coalition leaders also admitted that they would accept the president's resignation. The military, considered a key player in the conflict, said it supports the democratic system, but "not persons". At the same time, Union leaders called for a general strike until Sanchez de Lozada resigns.