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Morales’ exit leaves Bolivia power vacuum, splits region

A person gestures during a demonstration in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales after he announced his resignation on Sunday, in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Looting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended 14 years of socialist rule and left a power vacuum his opponents scrambled to fill.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, one of a wave of leftists who dominated Latin America’s politics at the start of the century, followed weeks of violent protests over a disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The 60-year-old former llama herder and coca leaf farmer was viewed by many as a champion of the poor who brought steady economic growth, but to others he was an autocrat who overstepped by defying a referendum on presidential term limits.

His government collapsed on Sunday after the Organization of American States (OAS) delivered a damning report into serious irregularities during the October vote, prompting ruling party allies to quit before the army urged him to step down.

Foes celebrated Morales’ departure but also moved swiftly to find a temporary successor before a presumed new election in the landlocked nation that is one of South America’s poorest, dependent on farming and natural gas.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital La Paz saying she was willing to take control.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Speaking tearfully about the crisis, she said the Senate would look to hold a session on Tuesday and urged members of Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party to attend to find a constitutional solution and interim president.

Morales’s resignation still needs to be approved by the Legislative Assembly, convened by both chambers of Congress.

That looked set to be delayed until at least Wednesday after the Chamber of Deputies said it would suspend a planned meeting on Tuesday as some of its members were unable to reach La Paz citing “force majeure” and insecurity.

GANGS, FIRES, CLASHES

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital, businesses were attacked and properties were set on fire. Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted, roads were blocked, and rival political groups clashed on the streets.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbors,” said Patricia Paredes, a 35-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Morales’ exact whereabouts were unknown, though it was thought he left in the presidential plane for his stronghold of Chapare province, where he rose to prominence as a union leader.

Morales repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho. “The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted.

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a dictator, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilians to keep control while Russia backed Morales.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house was set on fire by Morales supporters. A video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Possible interim leader Añez is a member of the Democratic Union party and senator for the department of Beni in the country’s lowland northeast. On arrival at El Alto airport, she was met by an Air Force helicopter to be taken to a military academy before traveling to Congress, another senator said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate halved, but his determination to cling to power and run for a fourth term alienated many allies, even among his indigenous base.


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