Clashes rock Bolivia as new interim leader challenged

Bolivia's Evo Morales was en route to exile in Mexico on Tuesday, leaving behind a country in turmoil after his abrupt resignation as president. (File/AFP)
Updated 14 November 2019

Clashes rock Bolivia as new interim leader challenged

  • A day after Jeanine Añez assumed power, violent clashes broke out between rock-throwing Morales’ backers and police in riot gear
  • In the streets, angry demonstrators tore off corrugated sheets of metal and wooden planks from construction sites to use as weapons

LA PAZ, Bolivia: Renewed clashes rocked Bolivia’s capital Wednesday as the woman who claimed the presidency, a second-tier lawmaker thrust into the post because of a power vacuum, faced challenges to her leadership from supporters of the ousted Evo Morales.

A day after Jeanine Añez assumed power, violent clashes broke out between rock-throwing Morales’ backers and police in riot gear, who fired volleys of tear gas to disperse the large crowd of protesters as fighter jets flew low overhead in a show of force.

Opposition was also building in Congress, where lawmakers loyal to Morales were mounting a challenge to Añez’s legitimacy by trying to hold new sessions that would undermine her claim to the presidency. The sessions — dismissed as invalid by Añez’s faction — added to the political uncertainty following the resignation of Morales, the nation’s first indigenous leader, after nearly 14 years in power.

In the streets, angry demonstrators tore off corrugated sheets of metal and wooden planks from construction sites to use as weapons, and some set off sticks of dynamite. Many along flooded the streets of the capital and its sister city of El Alto, a Morales stronghold, waving the multicolored indigenous flag and chanting, “Now, civil war!”

“We don’t want any dictators. This lady has stepped on us — that’s why we’re so mad,” said Paulina Luchampe. “We’re going to fight with our brothers and sisters until Evo Morales is back. We ask for his return. He needs to put the house in order.”

The 60-year-old Morales, who arrived in Mexico on Tuesday under a grant of asylum, has vowed to remain active in politics and said he would be willing to go back home. “If the people ask me, we are willing to return,” he said at news conference Wednesday in Mexico City.

According to the constitution, an interim president has 90 days to organize an election, and the disputed accession of Añez, who until Tuesday was second vice president of the Senate, was an example of the long list of obstacles she faces. Morales’ backers, who hold a two-thirds majority in Congress, boycotted the session she called Tuesday night to formalize her claim to the presidency, preventing a quorum.

She claimed power anyway, saying the constitution did not specifically require congressional approval. “My commitment is to return democracy and tranquility to the country,” she said. “They can never again steal our vote.”

Bolivia’s top constitutional court issued a statement late Tuesday laying out the legal justification for Añez taking the presidency — without mentioning her by name.

But other legal experts challenged the legal technicalities that led to her claim, saying at least some of the steps required Congress to meet.

The lingering questions could affect her ability to govern.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist at Florida International University, said the constitution clearly states that Añez didn’t need a congressional vote to assume the presidency. Even so, “the next two months are going to be extraordinarily difficult for President Añez,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem likely” that Morales’ party will accept Añez as president, said Jennifer Cyr, an associate professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. “So the question of what happens next remains — still quite unclear and extremely worrying.”

She will need to form a new electoral court, find non-partisan staff for the electoral tribunal and get Congress, which is controlled by Morales’ Movement for Socialism Party, to vote on a new election.

Morales resigned Sunday following weeks of violent protests fed by allegations of electoral fraud in the Oct. 20 election, which he claimed to have won. An Organization of American States audit reported widespread irregularities in the vote count and called for a new election.

But his resignation came only after Gen. Williams Kaliman, the armed forces commander, urged him to step down “for the good of Bolivia” — a move that Morales and his backers have branded a coup d’etat.

Ten people have died since the protests began, Bolivia’s prosecutor office said Wednesday.

Añez swore in a new Cabinet as well as new commanders-in-chief for all branches of the military Wednesday, replacing Kaliman, who had been a Morales loyalist, with Gen. Carlos Orellana. The move was seen as an effort to build an alliance with the military, although it was uncertain how much support she could count on from other Bolivian power centers.

Still, she received a boost of international support Wednesday.

Michael G. Kozak of the US State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs welcomed her as “interim constitutional president,” saying on Twitter: “We look forward to working with her & Bolivia’s other civilian authorities as they arrange free & fair elections as soon as possible, in accordance w/ Bolivia’s constitution.”

Brazil, which is one of Bolivia’s top trading partners, also congratulated her on her “constitutional” assumption of the presidency and her determination to work for peace and hold elections soon. Colombia and Guatemala also recognized her as interim president.

While Argentine President Mauricio Macri had not commented on the issue, Argentine lawmakers in both houses of Congress condemned what they called a coup.

Añez said on Twitter that she has also reached out to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó and asked him to send an ambassador to La Paz. The current ambassador reports to President Nicolás Maduro, who has rejected her claim to the presidency saying it lacked the necessary quorum.

From the start, Añez has tried to set herself apart from Morales. Wearing the presidential sash of office, she greeted supporters at an old presidential palace Tuesday night instead of the modern 26-story presidential office with a heliport that was built by Morales — a project his foes called one of his excesses.

She also carried a Bible, which had been banned by Morales from the presidential palace after he reformed the constitution and recognized the Andean earth deity Pachamama instead of the Roman Catholic Church.

Morales, a one-time llama shepherd from the Bolivian highlands and former coca growers’ union leader, helped lift millions out poverty as president, increasing social rights and presiding over stability and high economic growth in South America’s poorest country.

But even many supporters eventually grew weary of his long tenure in power — as well as his insistence on running for a fourth term despite a public referendum that upheld term limits. Bolivia’s high court, which critics contend was stacked in his favor, threw out the limits. Añez said Wednesday she would seek to have the 2016 court ruling overturned to keep Morales from running in the next election.


G5 Sahel leaders pay tribute to 71 soldiers slain in Niger

Updated 15 December 2019

G5 Sahel leaders pay tribute to 71 soldiers slain in Niger

NIAMEY: Leaders of the G5 Sahel nations held summit talks in Niamey Sunday, after the death last week of 71 Niger soldiers in a jihadist attack, calling for closer cooperation and international support in the battle against the Islamist threat.
Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the regional G5 group, called for a minute’s silence for the victims of Tuesday’s attack at a military camp in Inates, near the Mali border.
“These endless attacks carried out by terrorist groups in our region remind us not only of the gravity of the situation, but also the urgency for us to work more closely together,” said Kabore.
“The terrorist threat against the Sahel countries is getting worse,” said Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, the host of the summit.
The attacks were aimed not just at military targets but increasingly “civilian populations, notably traditional local leaders.”
Earlier four of the five Sahel leaders paid homage at the graves of 71 Niger military personnel killed. Kabore and Issoufou attended along with Mali’s Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, Chad’s Idriss Deby Itno for the short ceremony at an air base in Niamey.
The Daesh group claimed responsibility for the assault, in which hundreds of jihadists attacked a camp near the border with Mali with shells and mortars.
The attack in Inates in the western Tillaberi region was the deadliest on Niger’s military since Islamist militant violence began to spill over from neighboring Mali in 2015, and dealt a blow to efforts to roll back extremism in the Sahel.
At Sunday’s ceremony, a large panel painted in the red, white and green of the Niger flag bore the inscription; “rest in peace, worthy and valiant sons of the nation. The Fatherland will be eternally grateful.”
The G5 leaders announced on Saturday they would hold the extraordinary summit in Niger to show solidarity and to “consult” after the large-scale attack. The meeting had originally been due to take place in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou.
Niger has been observing three days of national mourning from Friday to Sunday.
Militant violence has spread across the vast Sahel region, especially in Burkina Faso and Niger, having started when armed Islamists revolted in northern Mali in 2012.
In the last four months, the insurgency has claimed the lives of more than 230 soldiers in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Last month, 13 French troops were killed in a helicopter collision while hunting jihadists in northern Mali.
Thousands of civilians have also died and more than a million have been forced to flee their homes since the jihadist revolt began.
Analysts note an escalation in the jihadists’ operational tactics, which seem to have become bolder and more complex in recent months.
From hit-and-run raids by a small group of Kalashnikov-armed guerrillas, the extremists are now carrying out operations that involve hundreds of fighters, armed with mortars and using vehicles for suicide attacks.
Ranged against them are the impoverished armies of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, plus a 4,500-man French force in the Sahel and the 13,000-man UN force in Mali, MINUSMA.
Tuesday’s attack prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to postpone a meeting scheduled for next week in the southwestern French town of Pau, where he and five presidents from the Sahel were due to discuss security in the region.
The talks will now take place early next year.
The Sahel region of Africa lies to the south of the Sahara Desert and stretches across the breadth of the African continent.