World

Head of Bolivian Senate assumes leadership in Morales' absence

The head of Bolivia's Senate, Jeanine Anez, took office as interim president on Tuesday as former leader Evo Morales pledged to keep up his political "fight" from exile in Mexico after resigning in what he has alleged was a coup.

Evo Morales vowed to keep up his political fight from exile in Mexico

Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez, centre, declared herself interim president of Bolivia on Tuesday. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

The head of Bolivia's Senate, Jeanine Anez, took office as interim president on Tuesday as former leader Evo Morales pledged to keep up his political "fight" from exile in Mexico after resigning in what he has alleged was a coup.

Anez, 52, assumed leadership before other lawmakers in Congress, invoking a constitutional clause that dictates that she would be next in line to rule the country after Morales and his vice-president, Alvaro Garcia, resigned on Sunday.

A parliamentary session scheduled to formally appoint her was boycotted by lawmakers from Morales's leftist MAS party, who said it would be illegitimate.

Morales flew out on a Mexican government plane late Monday, hours after being granted asylum. His supporters and foes fought on the streets of the capital, while an opposition leader tearfully laid out a possible path toward new elections in the wake of the president's resignation.

Upon arriving in exile in Mexico, Morales said the head of the country that gave him asylum had "saved my life."

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard met Morales as he arrived at the capital's airport after a flight from Bolivia that was complicated by some countries' reluctance to let the plane use their airspace.

The socialist leader said he's not going to abandon politics. "Let the whole world know that I won't change ideology because of his coup."

His escape from the country was a dramatic fall for the llama shepherd from the Bolivian highlands and former coca growers' union leader who, as president, helped lift millions out of poverty, increased social rights and presided over nearly 14 years of stability and high economic growth in South America's poorest country. In the end, though, his downfall was marked by his insistence on holding onto power.

This photo released by by Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard shows Morales holding a Mexican flag aboard a Mexican Air Force aircraft on Monday. (Mexico's Foreign Ministry via AP)

"It pains me to leave the country for political reasons, but I'll always be concerned," Morales said on Twitter. "I'll return soon, with more strength and energy."

In an earlier tweet, Morales posted a photo of his first night after he resigned showing him lying on a floor with an improvised blanket as a bed. He said had been forced into these conditions after what he called a coup by the opposition.

Angry supporters of the socialist leader set barricades ablaze to close some roads leading to the country's main airport Monday, while his foes blocked most of the streets leading to the capital's main square in front of Congress and the presidential palace. Police urged residents of La Paz to stay in their homes and authorities said the army would join in policing efforts to avoid an escalation of violence.

It was unclear if Anez's move to assume the leadership would quell unrest in La Paz or the other cities, unleashed by Morales' disputed bid for a fourth term.

The Canadian government is warning against all non-essential travel to Bolivia due to the political unrest and protests. 

Joint police-military operation

As tensions grew, local media reported that Morales supporters were marching on La Paz from the nearby city of El Alto, a Morales stronghold, to try to break the street blockades thrown up by his opponents and reach the capital's main square.

People walk past a restaurant in La Paz on Monday whose window was broken during a protest after Bolivia's President Evo Morales announced on Sunday that he was resigning. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Gen. Williams Kaliman, the chief of the armed forces, announced the joint police-military operation in a television address. He said the hope was to "avoid bloodshed and mourning of the Bolivian family," and he urged Bolivians to help restore peace.

Anti-Morales demonstrators in downtown La Paz set tires and other barricades on fire as other people went onto their rooftops to yell, "Evo, murderer!" Rock-throwing demonstrators also clashed in Cochabamba and other cities.

His presidency, the longest among serving leaders in the region and the longest ever in Bolivia, ended abruptly Sunday, hours after Morales had accepted calls for a new election by an Organization of American States team. The team reported a "heap of observed irregularities" in the Oct. 20 election whose official results showed Morales getting just enough votes to avoid a runoff that analysts said he could lose against a united opposition.

Morales stepped aside only after the military chief called on him to quit, saying that was needed to restore peace and stability. His vice-president also resigned as did the Senate president. The only other official listed by the constitution as a presidential successor, the head of the lower house, had resigned earlier.

A member of the Youth Resistance Cochala group at Cala Cala square in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on Monday. (David Mercado/Reuters)

Morales has lashed out at his political opponents, calling his removal a return to the bleak era of coups overseen by brutal Latin American militaries that ruled over the region.

Former President Carlos Mesa, who finished second in the election, said Morales was brought down by a popular uprising, not the military. He noted that troops did not take to the streets during the unrest.

Military 'on the right side for once'

"Academics and the press have been very critical of the Bolivian military. But this might be the only time in Bolivian military history that the military is on the right side for once," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist at Florida International University.

"There's nothing here that remotely mirrors a traditional military coup," Gamarra added. "Perhaps this is a time that the military is playing a role that it should play. It's not intervening in what are essentially civilian affairs."

A man kicks a tear gas canister during clashes between police and supporters of Morales who set up barricades in La Paz on Monday. (Juan Karita/The Associated Press)

Michael Shifter, head of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue, warned that Bolivia's polarization needs to healed by new leadership.

"The temptation for any vengeance against Morales supporters needs to be resisted," Shifter said. "That would be a recipe for continued conflict and chaos that could well put at risk some of the country's undeniable socio-economic gains over the past decade."

People waiting for flights Monday morning at the airport in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz listened to the national anthem played on television and then watched replays of Morales resigning in his televised address and news of the street clashes.

"At first people believed in him as an Indian. He was much more humble and accessible, but during these 14 years, he changed," Espana Villegas, a linguist, said while she waited for a flight to La Paz.

A woman prays outside the Cathedral of La Paz, following the announcement of Morales's resignation. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

Morales, who was from the poor Andean highlands, had promised to remain austere when he became president in 2006. But shortly after, he bought a new airplane and built a 26-storey presidential palace with a heliport.

"He fought poverty, he lifted our economy, but perhaps he wasn't well-advised," Villegas said.

Morales ran for a fourth term after refusing to accept the results of a referendum that upheld term limits for the president — restrictions thrown out by a top court that critics contend was stacked in his favour.

"The whole population was tired of him because it's been nearly 14 years of government," said a businessman from the city of Cochabamba, who asked to be identified only by the name Walter, fearing reprisals by Morales supporters.

"There was no respect anymore. We're hurt. He believed himself to be a god."

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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