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Newest Bolivian leader sparks more protests

Bill Cormier Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia – Protesters who forced President Carlos Mesa to resign returned to the streets Wednesday to denounce a congressional leader poised to replace him and to demand early elections that could boost the presidential aspirations of an anti-U.S. Indian leader.

Evo Morales, the leftist Indian leader who has been a key figure in the opposition protests that brought down Mesa this week, said early national elections are key to defusing the country’s political and social crisis.

He also demanded a constitutional assembly to address demands for more power for Indians and to begin a debate on nationalizing Bolivia’s oil industry.

“The street mobilizations will not halt,” Morales said.

Some 2,000 teachers, peasants and laborers marched through La Paz on Wednesday. Around the Government Palace, riot police with tear gas launchers warily eyed the column of Indians in bright red ponchos and campesinos waving rainbow-colored flags, but didn’t intervene.

Weeks of such protests coupled by blockades of highways nationwide crippled Bolivia’s economy and strangled La Paz, the capital. His government buckling, Mesa offered his resignation Monday night after only 19 months in power.

Lawmakers scrambled Wednesday to arrange a special congressional session to choose his successor this morning in the historic capital of Sucre, hundreds of miles southeast of La Paz. But local news media reported peasant protesters were headed to Sucre in an effort to prevent Congress from convening.

Morales vowed the protests would escalate if Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez – who, under Bolivia’s constitution, becomes president when lawmakers accept Mesa’s resignation – accepts the post.

A farming businessman, Vaca Diez, 56, hails from the eastern region of Santa Cruz and is widely seen as a conservative and free-market supporter.

His party, the MIR, has been mired in past corruption scandals and is widely discredited among Indian and labor groups in the western highlands of La Paz.

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.

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