LA PAZ, Bolivia - Lawmakers flew to Bolivia's historic capital of Sucre to open an emergency session of Congress Thursday to name a replacement for U.S.-backed President Carlos Mesa, who resigned after weeks of violent street protests.
However, a Senate leader who is first in the line of succession under Bolivia's constitution drew a storm of criticism from the indigenous leaders heading the protests, who vowed they will drive him from office if he gains power.
Street protests by indigenous groups, miners, students, labor activists and farmers have crippled Bolivia since they erupted May 14. The demonstrators, often numbering in the tens of thousands, have marched almost daily in the paralyzed capital of La Paz, demanding more social benefits for the poor and such steps as nationalizing Bolivia's oil industry.
Bolivian peasants occupy the 'Vibora ' field of Spain's Repsol company, about 190km Northeast of Santa Cruz de la Sierra June 8, 2005. About a thousand protesters demanding nationalization of Bolivia's natural resources and early elections have blocked access roads and entrances to the Santa Cruz fields. (Reuters)
Chronically unstable Bolivia, landlocked and with much of the country at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains, is South America's poorest nation. It is split between the Indian and labor groups from the impoverished western highlands, and the ruling class from Santa Cruz in the east and the oil-rich gas fields to the south.
The divides created by the U.S.-backed war on drugs are also at issue: Opposition leader Evo Morales draws his support from farmers who grow coca leaf, the raw ingredient for cocaine, while Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez would likely ally himself with the U.S. campaign to eradicate coca leaf plantations.
Morales lashed out late Wednesday at Vaca Diez, saying he was a wealthy landowner and another discredited member of the "mafia of the oligarchy," referring to the small elite that has governed Bolivia for decades.
Morales, a House deputy who commands the leftist Movement Toward Socialism party, warned his followers would "wage a campaign of civil disobedience" against any Vaca Diez presidency. "The street mobilizations will not halt."
Morales demanded congressional leaders call early elections in which the anti-U.S. leader would likely be a leading candidate, although he failed in one earlier attempt to run for Bolivia's presidency.
The protests of recent weeks have often turned violent and triggered clashes with riot police, prompting lawmakers to move Thursday's planned session from the Congress building in La Paz to Sucre, hundreds of miles to the southeast.
Camouflaged army troops with rifles at ready guarded the whitewashed hall where the leaders were to open their session Thursday morning in Sucre, the historic capital after Bolivia gained independence in the 19th century. Legislative and executive branches of government later relocated to La Paz though the Supreme Court is still headquartered in Sucre.
Weeks of protests coupled by blockades of highways nationwide crippled Bolivia's economy and strangled La Paz. His government buckling, Mesa offered his resignation Monday night after only 19 months in power.
A farmer and businessman, Vaca Diez, 56, hails from the eastern region of Santa Cruz and is widely seen as a conservative and free-market supporter. However, his MIR party has been mired in past corruption scandals and is reviled by Indian and labor groups in the western highlands around La Paz.
"Vaca Diez, we are ready for war!" marchers chanted in the streets of La Paz on Wednesday.
Morales and other leaders are trying to persuade Vaca Diez to immediately resign the presidency, sending it to second-in-line House leader Mario Cossio. They want Cossio to resign as well, sending the presidency to third-in-line Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Rodriguez.
If Rodriguez becomes president he must call elections within five months, while either Vaca Diez or Cossio would be allowed by law to serve out Mesa's term, which runs until August 2007.
Vaca Diez has not commented on the opposition's demands.
Bolivia's Catholic Church, which is mediating in the crisis, issued a call for a peaceful transition in a statement late Wednesday that urged lawmakers to find solutions that promote a climate of "governability" for the country.
© 2005 Associated Press