Bolivia's Mesa Puts His Cards on the Table

Bolivia's new government is "fragile", but President Carlos Mesa and his independent cabinet have the support of the people and are headed in the right direction, independent analyst Alvaro Rios told BNamericas.

"This is government for and by the people," Rios said, adding, "I hope people see that they have a government now that will work for them and you won't have civil servants just serving themselves." Mesa was vice-president until last Friday, when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned in the face of violent popular protests and collapsing support from within his own government. "We have honest ministers, as opposed to what we had in the past, we have seen their names and we are happy about them," Rios said, adding, "They are independent professionals and not just anybody out of the political parties."

However, Mesa is aware of the tightrope his government must walk. "Any mistakes could make Bolivia fall into the abyss," he warned his 15 new ministers at a ceremony at the government palace on Sunday. "Everything is almost back to normal, but things are difficult. We need a lot of international support right now and the government needs the support from political parties," Rios said.

One of Mesa's first moves was to announce a referendum on the project that triggered the protests against Sanchez de Lozada, the export of natural gas to the US. The project has divided the gas-rich country between the west, which is mostly populated by poor indigenous people, and the gas-producing east. "Whether the result of [the referendum] is going to be good or bad is something else, but at least we have something we are driving towards, because before we had nothing," Rios said. "It may take some time, and if we lose the [LNG] market that's too bad, but if that's what Bolivians want, we should respect that," he said, adding the gas project is "just one project" that should not be allowed to divide the country.

However, not everyone is in favor of a national referendum. Civic leaders in the eastern province of Tarija, where most of Bolivia's gas is produced, planned a protest march on Tuesday because they do not want the rest of the country to decide how their gas should be managed, local newspapers reported. Although Mesa has brought some stability to the social and political situation in Bolivia, many foreign investors are worried about his plans to modify the hydrocarbons law by increasing royalties for private companies.

US diplomat David Greenlee met with Mesa over the weekend to express his support for the new government, but also to seek assurances about the hydrocarbons law. "If they want to change their laws it's up to them. However; if they change the rules of the game there may be issues with investors when what the country needs most at the moment is investment," newspaper El Mundo quoted Greenlee as saying.

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