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Bolivian Congress Meets to Resolve Political Crisis

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Bolivia's congress is meeting in emergency session today to try to resolve that country's latest political crisis. On Monday, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa announced he is stepping down. Now the lawmakers must decide whether to accept the resignation and, if they do, choose a successor. That may not be easy. The country's opposition leaders oppose the man who is first in line for succession. Bill Faries is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in La Paz, the Bolivian capital.

Hello. Good morning.

Mr. BILL FARIES (The Christian Science Monitor): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what triggered this latest crisis in what is South America's poorest nation.

Mr. FARIES: Well, the crisis has been building for some time, but the latest spark was the passage last month of a new law dealing with the country's vast natural gas reserves. Leftist leaders here had been hoping for nationalization of the gas reserves, but the country's congress passed a law that effectively doubled the tax rates here on foreign oil companies operating in Bolivia. The result has been that the leftist leaders have brought their protesters down into La Paz, the capital, for the last three weeks. And La Paz sits at about 11,000 feet. It's a city that's very easy to cut off from the rest of the country, and so fuel supplies, food supplies have been going lower the last few weeks, and the congress has been unable to resolve the issue.

MONTAGNE: Now Carlos Mesa, the president, he's warned that all of this has added up to placing Bolivia on the brink of civil war. Is it really that bad or is that rhetoric on his part?

Mr. FARIES: The country is very divided politically right now. You don't have any leader that really gets more than 20 percent of the population's support, and the national political parties have very little credibility. The protesters here in La Paz have not shown much willingness to compromise at this point, and, meanwhile, on the eastern part of the country, business groups have shown that they have very little interest in dealing with the central government at this point. It's a complicated situation, and no one has been able to broker a compromise between any of the competing groups so far.

MONTAGNE: And the US-backed war on drugs, which is going on there, is that playing a role in this crisis?

Mr. FARIES: It does have a role in this process in the sense that the war on drugs here is generally not a very popular effort among most Bolivians. They see it as Americans overreaching and trying to get too involved in their internal affairs here. One of the main leftist leaders in Bolivia right now is Evo Morales, who's a member congress and the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism party, which is backed by a lot of the illegal coca growers in central and southern Bolivia. And he has drawn a very strong line against US efforts here. And one thing that has antagonized his relationship with the US is his support for other South American leaders, like Hugo Chavez, who is not very popular with the US government at this point.

MONTAGNE: So back to what the congress there is facing. The president has quit and they don't like the next person in line for the presidency. Break that down for us. What are they--it doesn't sound like they have any good options.

Mr. FARIES: It's a difficult situation right now. On, I believe it was, Monday evening, the president offered his resignation to congress. Now congress is due to meet this morning in the southern city of Sucre to consider that resignation. Constitutionally, if the president's resignation is accepted, the next in line is the head of the Senate, a man named Hormando Vaca Diaz, who's from the eastern part of the country and is very unpopular with the protesters who've been in La Paz the last three weeks. Polls here have shown that the majority of Bolivians would like to see Mr. Vaca Diaz also resign along with the speaker of the lower house. Constitutionally, if that happens, power goes to the head of the Supreme Court who's required to organize new elections by the end of the year, but it's not clear at this point whether Mr. Vaca Diaz wants to give up his shot at the presidency, and the feeling in La Paz at least is that if he tries to hold on to power, that that will just inflame the protesters who've been here the last three weeks.

MONTAGNE: And how is it likely to be resolved?

Mr. FARIES: Everybody's eyes are on the congressional meeting in Sucre today. The Catholic Church has been trying to mediate this problem. The former president got on the air the other night asking both Mr. Vaca Diaz and his colleague in the lower house to step down, but it's really not clear where this is headed at this point. Everybody is kind of sitting on the edge of their seats here. Everyone on all sides says they'd like to find a peaceful solution, but people don't seem very willing to compromise at this point.

MONTAGNE: Bill Faries is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in La Paz, Bolivia. Thanks very much.

Mr. FARIES: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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