Morales leaves for Mexico as Bolivia military pledges to tackle violence
November 12 2019 11:12 AM
People demonstrate in support of Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales in front of the Bolivian embassy
People demonstrate in support of Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales in front of the Bolivian embassy in Mexico City

AFP/La Paz

Bolivia's Evo Morales departed Monday for exile in Mexico, leaving behind a country in turmoil after his abrupt resignation as president.

As the nation suddenly found itself without a leader, the military agreed to help police take back streets lost to violence from disgruntled supporters of Bolivia's first indigenous president.

The senator set to succeed Morales as interim president, Jeanine Anez, pledged to call fresh elections to end the political crisis.

Bolivia appeared increasingly rudderless after dozens of officials and ministers resigned along with Morales, some seeking refuge in foreign embassies.

Morales left the country on a military plane sent for him by Mexico, which granted him political asylum for his safety. Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed Morales was on the plane.

‘It pains me to leave the country for political reasons, but I will always be watching. I will be back soon with more strength and energy,’ Morales tweeted.

The crisis touched off by his resignation Sunday -- after three weeks of protests over his disputed re-election -- deepened Monday as gangs unhappy with his departure attacked police stations and civilians, triggering panic in the streets.

On Monday night hundreds of Morales supporters who traveled to La Paz from nearby El Alto protested outside the presidential palace.

Overwhelmed police asked for help from the army.

‘The military command of the armed forces has arranged for joint operations with the police to prevent bloodshed and fighting amongst the Bolivian family,’ said chief General Williams Kaliman in a televised address.

Three people have died in clashes since the disputed election.

- Morales supporters arrested -

Morales claimed on Twitter late Monday that two of his homes had been attacked by ‘vandalism groups.’

Opposition leader Carlos Mesa claimed on Twitter that ‘a violent mob’ was heading for his home to attack it.

AFP photographers saw civilians making arrests after tussling with Morales supporters in La Paz, sometimes assisted by police. Some of those detained were made to kneel in the street, hands behind their backs, and some were bloodied.

Shops and offices in La Paz were shuttered on Monday in the wake of looting that broke out late Sunday in parts of La Paz and El Alto.

The police -- largely confined to barracks since riots broke out on Friday, with many units joining the protests -- were returning to the streets, police chief Vladimir Yuri Calderon said.

Several of Morales' ministers and top officials resigned after his announcement -- including many who sought refuge at the Mexican embassy -- raising the question of who was in charge, given that vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera had also quit.

Under the constitution, power then passes to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the lower house of Congress, in that order. But they have resigned too.

Anez stepped in on Sunday to say she would assume the presidency, given her position as deputy senate leader.

The 52-year-old is likely to be tasked by Congress to oversee fresh elections and a transition to a new government by January 22.

Lawmakers are due to meet on Tuesday to begin the process.

- 'Assume responsibility' -

Morales, 60, announced his resignation in a televised address on Sunday. The streets of La Paz immediately exploded in celebration, with jubilant Bolivians waving the country's flag, but violence and vandalism later erupted overnight there and in El Alto.

Morales, a former coca farmer who was Bolivia's first indigenous president, said his opposition rivals, Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho, ‘will go down in history as racists and coup plotters.’

US President Donald Trump hailed Morales's resignation as a ‘significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere,’ and praised the role of the country's military.

‘These events send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail,’ Trump said, referring to two other leftist Latin American nations targeted by his administration.

- Irregularities -

Morales defended his legacy on Sunday, which includes landmark gains against hunger and poverty and tripling the country's economy during his nearly 14 years in office.

He gained a controversial fourth term when he was declared the winner of the presidential election by a narrow margin.

But the opposition cried foul and three weeks of street protests ensued, during which three people died and hundreds were injured.

An OAS audit of the election found irregularities in just about every aspect that it examined.

Morales called new elections but commanders of the armed forces and police backed calls for his resignation.

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