Evo Morales Flees Crisis-Torn Bolivia After Deadly Clashes

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -
This photo, released by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, shows Bolivia’s former President Evo Morales holding a Mexican flag aboard a Mexican Air Force aircraft, Monday. (Mexico’s Foreign Minister via AP)

Bolivia faced its worst unrest in decades amid a political vacuum Tuesday, while Evo Morales, who transformed the Andean nation as its first indigenous president, fled the country following weeks of violent protests.

Morales flew out on a Mexican government plane late Monday, hours after being granted asylum, as 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.

Morales stepped down Sunday following weeks of widespread protests fed by allegations of electoral fraud in the Oct. 20 presidential election that he claimed to have won.

Resignations by every other constitutionally designated successor left unclear who would take his place and how.

His flight 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 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.

“It pains me to leave the country for political reasons, but I’ll always be concerned,” Morales said. “I’ll return soon, with more strength and energy.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard published a photo of Morales holding the flag of Mexico, saying that the plane had left Bolivia and that Morales was safe.

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

The Senate’s second vice president, opposition politician Jeanine Añez, said in an emotional address that she would take temporary control of the Senate, though it was unclear if she would be able to get approval from Congress, which is controlled by Morales supporters. She would become next in line for the presidency if chosen to head the Senate.

“Please excuse me if my voice breaks,” Añez said between tears after arriving in Congress under heavy guard. “It’s so hard to see Bolivians clashing, no matter which side they’re on. They are being mistreated, and I’m asking you to cease the violence.”

Añez said she would convene a legislative session Tuesday to consider accepting the formal resignation of Morales. It was unclear, however, if lawmakers could meet that soon because of insecurity in the capital.

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.

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

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 (OAS) 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.

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 [juntas] 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.

“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,” 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.”