Written by Clifford Krauss
Bolivia’s political crisis took a dramatic turn Tuesday when a leading lawmaker stepped forward and claimed the presidency, even as the country’s ousted leader urged his supporters in the legislature to battle on from his exile in Mexico.
“I assume the presidency immediately and will do everything necessary to pacify the country,” Sen. Jeanine Añez Chavez told members of the assembly.
But with supporters of ousted President Evo Morales refusing to take part in the session, it was not certain whether Añez’s declaration would move the country away from conflict or headlong into it.
Minutes after she spoke, Bolivia’s highest constitutional court issued a ruling that backed her assumption of power. But it was not clear that either Morales’ supporters, the military or the country at large would accept Añez’s actions.
On Sunday, with protesters swelling the streets of Bolivia and the military and police withdrawing their support for him, Morales stepped down and later fled the country, denouncing what he called a coup.
After the announcement, Morales denounced Añez’s claim as illegitimate and said on Twitter that she had acted “without legislative quorum, surrounded by a group of accomplices and supported by the armed forces and the police, which repress the people.”
Many Bolivians welcomed Añez’s declaration, which could signal the end of the political standstill that has gripped the nation if it is widely accepted. Fireworks echoed across La Paz, in Bolivia’s largest city and in other major urban centers. But at the same time, police used tear gas to disperse furious crowds of Morales’ supporters who were gathered in downtown La Paz.
It was not immediately clear whether her claim to power, which took place without the necessary number of legislators required to approve it, would be accepted.
Morales’ abrupt departure came after the armed forces sided with protesters who had accused him of rigging an election to stay in power. The resignation vaulted Bolivia into a leaderless power vacuum.
Some political and legal analysts said the steps taken by Añez and the assembly members present for her announcement were extraordinary but necessary because members of Morales’ party had boycotted the scheduled session at which they were to select a new president.
Earlier Tuesday, in a rapid-fire series of tweets, Morales had urged members of his coalition to continue blocking efforts to nominate an interim leader. He congratulated the legislators for not showing up at the legislative session at which his resignation would have been formally accepted and Añez recognized as the country’s interim leader. He said they were “acting with unity and dignity to reject any manipulation by the racist, coup-mongering and traitorous right wing.”
This frustrated many of the legislators who wanted to move forward. “Today, they have to understand that the most important is Bolivia, not Evo Morales,” one opposition lawmaker, Luis Felipe Dorado, said of the president’s supporters. “Evo Morales is gone from the country, but they continue to obey him, not the will of the country.”
A former media executive and leader of a conservative coalition, Añez said before she declared herself president that she would lead a transition focused on selecting an honest electoral commission and holding elections as soon as possible. “This is simply a transitory moment,” she said earlier Tuesday. “There is an urgency.”
On Monday, as looting and violence spread across several cities, Añez at first appeared rattled, sobbing as she called for calm. But by the evening, she was projecting strength and demanding that the army accept the national police’s call to jointly patrol the streets of La Paz to restore order.
The army quickly responded, sending troops into the streets and setting up defensive positions around vital infrastructure like electricity and waterworks.
By Tuesday morning, the streets of La Paz were tense but largely quiet. Bolivians remained sharply divided in their political views — and in their hopes for the future.
Morales, who was first elected in 2006, was the first indigenous president of Bolivia, where about two-thirds of the population are of indigenous descent. In the Plaza San Francisco in La Paz, street vendors, most indigenous, overwhelmingly expressed support for him. “Evo was the best president we ever had,” said Rosario Siñane, 39, who was selling individually wrapped candies. “Now we have no more hope.”
José Ariel Blanco, the 25-year-old owner of a stationery store two blocks from the legislature, said he was thankful for Morales’ achievements — chief among them, tackling the racism that the indigenous had suffered for centuries.
“My grandmother couldn’t walk into a bank in her indigenous clothes until Evo became president,” he said. “Now she can, and that won’t change.”
But he said Morales went too far in bending the rules of democracy. “The Venezuelan and Cuban models don’t work overtime,” he said.
Down the street from Blanco’s store, Victor Huancollo, a 24-year-old computer science university student, stood guard at a makeshift barricade intended to keep supporters of Morales from approaching the legislature. He was hopeful that new elections would be held in a few months, he said, and that “a transparent president who is not corrupt will emerge, not like what we had over the last 14 years.”
On Tuesday morning Morales was met by Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, at the presidential hangar of Mexico City’s main airport.
In comments to the news media, Morales remained defiant, vowing to continue his involvement in politics and his fight for social justice, Bolivia’s indigenous populations and the poor. “Our sin is that we are ideologically anti-imperialist, but this coup won’t make me change ideologically,” he said.