LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) # Dozens of tanks ringed Bolivia’s presidential palace on Tuesday to shield the besieged government from an expected worsening of violence after weeks of a popular revolt that has killed at least 52 people.
Deeply disliked President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who has refused to step down as the death toll spirals higher, met with his political allies to shore up his crumbling support. Meanwhile, indigenous and labor leaders called for more roadblocks to protest his pro-U.S., free-market policies.
The mountain capital of La Paz has been under siege for weeks, paralyzed by looting, food shortages and gun battles between protesters and police that killed an estimated 14 people on Monday, according to a local human rights group.
Movement was nearly impossible again on Tuesday morning as protesters dug up roads with chisels and scattered the paving stones to block major intersections. In recent days, some who have attempted to commute to work have had their cars pelted with rocks by angry mobs.
The unrest has been spearheaded by Bolivia’s indigenous majority, which has accused Sanchez de Lozada of pandering to the U.S. government’s war on drugs and failing to improve living standards in South America’s poorest nation.
Farmers of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, have joined a diverse group of protesters calling for the president to quit. Schoolteachers and bus drivers are on strike, while the international airport remains closed.
Politicians under pressure
Sanchez de Lozada was elected by Congress in 2002 after failing to win a majority of the popular vote in this nation of 8.3 million, 60 percent of which lives on less than $2 a day.
Vice President Carlos Mesa also withdrew his support for the government over the weekend, but said on Tuesday he would try to get Congress to meet to come up with an orderly solution to the conflict.
Former president Jaime Paz Zamora said his leftist party, a key member of the strained ruling coalition, supported the president “for reasons of responsibility.”
Paz Zamora himself was targeted by hundreds of protesters on Monday who attempted to break into his house.
The latest round of protests were triggered by a government plan to export natural gas to the United States, which struck a historical nerve in a country where foreign powers have exploited natural wealth at little benefit to the population. As many as 8 million Indians and slaves died working in silver mines during hundreds of years of colonial Spanish rule.
Sanchez de Lozada abandoned the gas export project on Monday, but protest leaders said the gesture came too late to save his government.