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Clashes in Bolivia as Morales supporters challenge interim president's legitimacy

Evo Morales supporters in La Paz plead with police to stop throwing teargas. Huge crowds also mobilised in El Alto.
Evo Morales supporters in La Paz plead with police to stop throwing teargas. Huge crowds also mobilised in El Alto. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Fresh clashes have broken out in Bolivia’s main city as the newly declared interim president Jeanine Añez faced challenges to her leadership in the Senate and the streets from supporters of the exiled leader Evo Morales.

Running battles broke out in La Paz as Morales supporters, throwing rocks and wielding wooden planks, squared off against riot police who set off teargas into the crowds of demonstrators. Huge crowds also mobilised in the adjacent city of El Alto, demanding his return.

Former senate head Adriana Salvatierra, a Morales loyalist who resigned just after he did, was prevented from entering the parliament building by police who scuffled with her supporters.

Emboldened Movement For Socialism (MAS) lawmakers and senators, who hold a two-thirds majority, tried to hold sessions to declare Añez’s claim to the presidency illegal and block Morales’s resignation.

But the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, congratulated Añez on claiming the country’s top job: “The United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Añez for stepping up as interim president of state to lead her nation through this democratic transition, under the constitution of Bolivia and in accordance with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

Meanwhile, Morales called for dialogue with his political rivals but repeated his allegation that he was the victim of a coup, as the country’s interim leader pledged to hold new elections as soon as possible.

Speaking at a press conference in Mexico City, Morales called for an end to the violence that has racked Bolivia since elections last month plagued with allegations of vote-rigging.

“I have a message for the police and the armed forces: don’t stain yourselves with the blood of the people,” he said. At least eight people have been killed in three weeks of clashes across Bolivia.

Morales dismissed an Organisation of American States report that found there had been “clear manipulations” of the vote which would have handed him his fourth term in office. He saidhis rightwing opponents had plotted the coup from the night of the vote.

“The OAS is not at the service of the people of Latin America. It is at the service of the USA,” he said. “We built a lot with so much sacrifice and now this coup is destroying Bolivia.”

As Morales spoke in exile, Añez pledged to hold a new election as soon as possible, calling for a peaceful transition from what she described as a “totalitarian regime”.

In a message to Bolivia’s young people, she tweeted: “God bless you and allow us to be free and to hold transparent elections soon.”

The senate vice-president and a conservative Christian, Añez declared herself the country’s interim president late on Tuesday with outsized Bible in her hand – despite a boycott of the legislative session by lawmakers from Morales’s party.

Clashes broke out between police and Morales supporters.
Clashes broke out between police and Morales supporters. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Even as she assumed the role, angry Morales supporters decried her as a racist usurper who had seized power illegally.

Ruben Chambi, an MAS lawmaker described her oath of office as a “media show” and told supporters that his party would reject Morales’s resignation, “so that he comes back directly and resumes his functions as president”.

Morales resigned on Sunday after a tumultuous 48 hours in which police officers mutinied, the OAS said it could not verify his first-round victory and the military command urged him him to quit. He flew into exile in Mexico on Tuesday.

Bolivia’s constitutional court has said that after the resignations of Morales, his deputy and the presidents of the senate and chamber of deputies, Añez was next in line to assume the presidency. With no one to swear her in, she took power noting that the constitution did not require congressional approval.

But in the streets of La Paz, hundreds of Morales supporters waved the multi-coloured Wiphala, the flag of native people of the Andes associated with Morales’ government, shouting: “She must quit!”

“She’s declared herself president without having a quorum in the parliament,” said one protester, Julio Chipana. “She doesn’t represent us.”

Others swore their enduring loyalty to Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader in modern times.

“While our president and maximum leader Evo Morales is alive, the MAS will carry on,” said the party youth leader Alejandro Martínez. “He may not come back tomorrow, or the day after, but that won’t stop us from taking the streets.”

Añez cuts a starkly contrasting figure with Morales.

Entering the parliament building on Tuesday night, she brandished an outsized bible, in an explicit rebuke to Morales, who banned the Christian holy book from the presidential palace when he reformed the constitution in 2009 to recognize Pachamama, the Andean Mother Earth deity, instead of the Catholic church.

“My commitment is to return democracy and tranquility to the country,” she said. “They can never again steal our vote.”

Afterwards, she greeted supporters from the balcony of the old Casa Quemado presidential palace rather than the 26-storey Casa del Pueblo skyscraper built by Morales, which opponents saw as an example of his excesses.

Her sudden move to the political centre stage prompted a closer look at racist remarks towards Bolivia’s indigenous majority on her social media accounts.

One tweet from 2013 – later deleted – describes indigenous Aymara new year’s celebrations as “satanic” and concludes: “Nobody can replace God!” In another post, she questioned whether a group of indigenous people were genuine because they were wearing shoes.

Yerko Ihlik, a Bolivian political commentator, downplayed her potential to further polarize the country.

“The [interim] president has one mandate and that mandate is to call new elections as quickly as possible,” he said. “The constitution allows 90 days but the country’s situation demands that they are sooner.”

But in a clear sign that she intends to steer the country away from the socialism of her predecessor, one of Añez’s first acts on Wednesday was to recognise the opposition leader Juan Guiadó as president of Venezuela – overturning Bolivia’s support for Nicolás Maduro under Morales.

The US and Brazil were quick to offer their congratulations to Añez. “We look forward to working with her and Bolivia’s other civilian authorities as they arrange free and fair elections as soon as possible,” tweeted Michael Kozak, US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.

The UK and the US warned their citizens to avoid travel to Bolivia, with the US ordering the departure of diplomatic family members and non-emergency US government employees.

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