Power Struggle in Bolivia 11/14 06:13
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Where does the power line stand in crisis-torn
Jeanine Aez, the Senate leader who has claimed the interim presidency of the
Andean country, seems to have the backing of the police, the military and the
Roman Catholic Church.
But even in self-exile in Mexico after resigning under pressure from the
armed forces, former President Evo Morales says he would be willing to return
to Bolivia, and his supporters are making a show of force in the streets while
his party controls a majority in both houses of Congress.
Normal life briefly returned Wednesday morning, just hours after Aez assumed
power. Morales' foes celebrated by waving national flags before they lifted
roadblocks nationwide. Businesses rolled up metal sheets protecting them from
looting. Public transportation resumed in La Paz.
Then, violent clashes erupted between Morales loyalists and police in
Bolivia's capital and raged well into the night. His supporters also flooded
into the streets of La Paz's sister city of El Alto, a Morales stronghold,
waving the multicolored indigenous flag and chanting, "Now, civil war!"
Rock-throwing demonstrators in downtown La Paz tore off corrugated metal and
wooden planks from construction sites to use as weapons, and some set off
sticks of dynamite. Police in riot gear responded with volleys of tear gas as
fighter jets roared low over the crowd in a show of force.
The unrest is a sign of the challenges facing Aez, who was a second-tier
lawmaker before she thrust herself into the presidency, citing the power vacuum
created by Morales' departure.
She needs to win recognition, stabilize the nation and organize new
elections within 90 days, rebuilding after weeks of violent protests against
Morales over his disputed claim to have won the Oct. 20 election amid claims of
vote fraud. The upheaval, and an erosion in his support, led Bolivia's first
indigenous president to fly to Mexico after nearly 14 years in power.
"If this is seen by the indigenous social movement as an effort by the old
elite to restore the old order in Bolivian society, I think that is a recipe
for tremendous political conflict," said Kenneth Roberts, professor of
government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Morales upended politics in this nation long ruled by light-skinned
descendants of Europeans by reversing deep-rooted inequality. The economy grew
strongly thanks to a boom in prices of commodities and he ushered through a new
constitution that created a new Congress with seats reserved for Bolivia's
smaller indigenous groups while also allowing self-rule for all indigenous
Although some of his supporters had been disenchanted by his insistence on
holding on to power, he remains popular, especially among other members of his
native Aymara ethnic group. Many of them worry they might lose their gains, and
they have been protesting reports that the multicolored Wiphala flag that
represents them has been burned by people who sympathize with the opposition.
"More than 13 years of progress under Evo were lost in a minute when he
resigned," said Magenta Villamil, a demonstrator. "They have not only burnt a
flag --- it's the indigenous peoples."
Aez also faces a challenge to her legitimacy in Congress, where lawmakers
loyal to Morales tried to hold new sessions that would undermine her claim to
the presidency. The sessions --- dismissed as invalid by Aez's faction ---
added to the political uncertainty.
Morales' backers, who hold a two-thirds majority in Congress, boycotted the
session that 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. Bolivia's top constitutional court issued a
statement laying out the legal justification for Aez taking the presidency ---
without mentioning her by name.
But other legal experts questioned the legal technicalities that led to her
claim, saying at least some of the steps required Congress to meet.
Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist at Florida International
University, said the constitution clearly states that Aez didn't need a
congressional vote to assume the presidency. Even so, the next months "are
going to be extraordinarily difficult for President Aez," he said.
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.
Bolivia's crisis escalated Sunday, when an Organization of American States
audit reported widespread irregularities in the Oct. 20 election and called for
a new election.
Morales said he agreed Bolivia should hold a new election, but a few hours
later he resigned after Gen. Williams Kaliman, the armed forces commander,
urged him to step down "for the good of Bolivia." Kaliman had been a Morales
loyalist, but the departed president and his backers have called the general's
action a coup d'etat.
Aez swore in a new Cabinet on Wednesday, and she named new
commanders-in-chief for all branches of the military, including replacing
Kaliman. The move was seen as an effort to build an alliance with the military.
She also met with dozens of police officers and assured them they would get
the working conditions that they demanded and never got under Morales. Police
officers outside Bolivia's presidential palace abandoned their posts and in
some cities declared mutinies a day before Morales resigned.
Aez has also received the backing of Morales' main election rival, former
President Carlos Mesa, who came in second in the Oct. 20 ballot. But it's
uncertain how much support she could count on from other Bolivian power centers.
There has been some international support, too.
Michael G. Kozak of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere
Affairs welcomed her as "interim constitutional president." Brazil, which is
one of Bolivia's top trading partners, congratulated her on her
"constitutional" assumption of the presidency.
But in Argentina, where a large Bolivian population lives, lawmakers in both
houses of Congress condemned what they called a coup.
And in Mexico, Morales himself looms.
He is promising to remain active in Bolivia's politics and mayors loyal to
him in Bolivia's countryside have continued to mobilize large crowds.
At a Wednesday news conference in Mexico, Morales said, "If the people ask
me, we are willing to return."