Warning of civil war as Bolivia picks president

As the Bolivian parliament prepared to name a new president yesterday, protesters took to the streets to denounce the likely choice while the head of the country's armed forces indicated they could step in to restore order.

The moves were the latest escalation of Bolivia's gravest political crisis in a decade, which has rendered it to all intents ungovernable. It has brought the country - in the words of the outgoing President Carlos Mesa - "to the verge of civil war" and conceivably even geographic disintegration.

Lawmakers last night convened in the tightly guarded historic capital of Sucre for an emergency session of Congress. It was expected to select as head of state the conservative lawyer and landowner Hormando Vaca Diez, the head of the Senate and constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency. Leftwing protesters, however, vow to remove him if he does take office.

The gathering came as La Paz was again paralysed by protests from a host of opposition groups, among them coca leaf farmers, miners, students, labour activists and representatives of Bolivia's majority indigenous Indian population.

As the political parties held meetings before the crucial vote, Admiral Luis Aranda Granados went on national television to urge the country's politicians to "remain within the bounds of the constitution". He rejected Mr Mesa's use of the term civil war, but warned nonetheless that "confrontation between Bolivians" was the greatest risk facing the country. Mr Mesa's departure underscores the crisis facing Latin America's poorest country. He had only been in office since October 2003, when his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, abandoned power, driven into exile by protest against harsh market reforms that were perceived as a capitulation to International Monetary Fund and US diktat that only widened the gulf between the country's rich and poor.

Now Mr Mesa in turn has decided to step down in an attempt to defuse the protests that have paralysed the capital La Paz, and disrupted oil and gas production, the prime source of Bolivia's income.

The country's problems are an extreme instance of the tensions that have driven eight presidents from office across South America since 2000, and generated a string of electoral victories for left-leaning parties. Even by the region's tormented standards, however, Bolivia's social divisions are acute.

A third of its people live on less than $1 (55p) a day. Poverty is concentrated among the indigenous population, who have next to nothing to show for the sacrifices demanded to put the economy to rights. Most of the country's land and mineral wealth belongs to a colonial elite.

The best prospect for a short-term solution is a deal whereby Mr Vaca Diaz and Mario Cossio Cortez, head of the lower house of Parliament and the next in line for the presidency, both step aside. This would allow Eduardo Rodriguez, President of Bolivia's Supreme Court, to become interim president, with the duty of calling elections to be held by November at the latest. In contrast, Mr Vaca Diez or Mr Cossio Cortez would be entitled to serve out President Mesa's full term, which runs until August 2007.

Polls show 55 per cent of Bolivians back Mr Rodriguez. Only 16 per cent want Mr Vaca Diez, who is aligned with the pro-American business and energy industry elite. The outgoing Mr Mesa has appealed to Mr Vaca Diez to step aside, and "spare the country the possibility of breaking into a thousand pieces". The latter, however, has hinted he would call in the army to retain power - an invitation to which Admiral Aranda Granados' television appearance may have been a veiled reply.

Even elections are unlikely to provide a lasting answer to Bolivia's woes. Since 2003, a myriad of opposition blocs have emerged. Some demand a new constitution; others want economic changes, most notably full nationalisation of the energy industry. It is concentrated in the wealthy eastern province of Santa Cruz (from which Mr Vaca Diez hails). That region is now demanding greater autonomy, in which case political divisions would lead to a physical division of Bolivia as well.

A key role will be played by Evo Morales, a coca farmer and leader of the opposition Movement Towards Socialism party. He calls Mr Vaca Diez part of the "mafia of the oligarchy" and has promised a campaign of civil disobedience if he becomes leader. "The street mobilisations will not halt," he says.

Four years of chaos

* DECEMBER 2001: Farmers reject a government offer of $900 each a year in exchange for the eradication of the coca crop.

* AUGUST 2002: Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada becomes president for second time after polls.

* FEBRUARY 2003: More than 30 killed in violent protests against an income tax. The President withdraws the proposal.

* SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2003: 80 killed, hundreds injured in protests over plans to export natural gas via Chile. The President resigns and is succeeded by Carlos Mesa.

* AUGUST 2004: President Mesa signs natural gas export deal with Argentina. Opponents say it pre-empts a referendum and demand President's resignation.

* JANUARY 2005: Rising fuel prices trigger large-scale protests.

* MARCH 2005: President Mesa submits his resignation, saying protests have made it impossible to govern. Congress rejects it.

* MAY-JUNE 2005: Protests continue. President Mesa promises a new constitution and a referendum on autonomy for resource-rich provinces.

* 6 JUNE: As angry street protests continue, President Mesa resigns.

* 8 JUNE: President Mesa warns of "civil war"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas