Bolivia’s Accidental Leader Tries to Fend Off Evo Morales, Set New Vote
Evo Morales fled this country after nearly 14 years of increasingly authoritarian rule, but he remains omnipresent, his presidential portrait still hanging in many government offices.
His successor says she won’t be sticking around long enough to sit for her own official photograph.
“Let the next president do that,” Interim President Jeanine Añez said in an interview Wednesday night with The Wall Street Journal.
In the wake of a fraud-marred presidential election and nationwide protests that led Mr. Morales to resign a month ago, Ms. Añez said her main goal is to organize a clean election next year in which she will not participate. Her caretaker duties will last less than a year. But so far, her tenure has been tumultuous.
She called in the army to put down violent demonstrations against her government. Mr. Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS, party continues to control Congress. And on Thursday, Mr. Morales showed up in neighboring Argentina, where he received political asylum two days after the inauguration of an ally, left-wing President Alberto Fernández.
“I’ve just arrived in Argentina to keep fighting for the poorest of the poor and to unite the great fatherland,” Mr. Morales tweeted.
Felipe Solá, Argentina’s foreign minister, said Mr. Morales, who spent the past month in Mexico and Cuba, “feels better” in Argentina. “Whenever he can go back to Bolivia, he will.”
Despite being thrust into the job, Ms. Añez, 52-years-old, said in the interview she would keep Mr. Morales in check and her government on track.
She had been serving in relative anonymity as the second vice president of Bolivia’s senate. But after Mr. Morales, his vice president, and both heads of Congress resigned in unison, Ms. Añez was next in the line of succession.
“Everything happened so fast,” she said as she sipped water in a chamber in the presidential palace, which is decorated with oil paintings of Bolivia’s founding fathers. “I assumed a huge responsibility and didn’t have much time to think about whether or not I should do so, if it would be dangerous, or if I would be successful.”
Her critics point out that Mr. Morales resigned at the urging of Bolivia’s armed forces and that when Ms. Añez was sworn-in on Nov. 13, it was a military officer who placed the green, yellow and red presidential sash over her shoulder.
“She took power through a coup d’etat,” Adriana Salvatierra, a MAS party senator, said in an interview. “That makes her government illegitimate.”
Ms. Añez has also come under scrutiny for sending troops into the streets last month as Mr. Morales’s supporters tried to encircle major cities to cut off supplies of food and gasoline. At least 18 pro-Morales demonstrators were killed in two major clashes with soldiers.
Ms. Añez said she mobilized the army at the request of an overwhelmed police force, a move that she claimed prevented even more deaths. She blamed her predecessor for provoking the crisis by trying to steal the Oct. 20 election. An audit by the intergovernmental Organization of American States backs her assertions, saying last week that there was “overwhelming evidence” of vote-rigging designed to deliver a fourth term for Mr. Morales.
“He is the one who incited the violence,” said Ms. Añez, who wore a pin-striped jacket as she sat back in an upholstered armchair. Mr. Morales denies any electoral fraud .
The youngest of eight children, Ms. Añez was born in San Joaquin, a farm town of 7,000 people in the northern state of Beni. Her parents taught at the local high school where she played basketball and made the honor roll.
“She was very bookish and usually the best student in her class,” said her brother, Juan Carlos Añez.
She earned a law degree and worked as a TV news anchor in the state capital before jumping into politics. In 2006, the year Mr. Morales was first sworn-in, she was elected to a special assembly that drafted a new constitution. She served as an opposition senator but had planned to step down in January.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up as president,” she said in the Spanish-language interview.
Ms. Añez has refused to move into Mr. Morales’s former quarters, a presidential suite inside a 29-story government compound inaugurated last year by the former president in La Paz’s low-scale historic center. Instead, she has returned the presidential home to the colonial-style “Burned Palace,” the national palace that was badly damaged when mobs set it ablaze in 1875.
Communications Minister Roxana Lizárraga portrays the president as kindly to strangers and a lover of dogs, noting that the palace is now home to several strays.
But Mr. Morales’s allies note how she carried an oversized Bible to her swearing-in, which they saw as a slap in the face because of the conflicted history between Indigenous Bolivians, who make up nearly half the population, and the Catholic church.
Sergio Choque, a MAS congressman and president of the lower house, accused Ms. Añez of fomenting hatred against his party. “When we enter the Congress building, people throw rocks at us,” he said.
In a poll published Wednesday by the La Paz newspaper Página Siete, 43% of Bolivians surveyed approved of Ms. Añez’s job as head of state while 23% disapproved. Two-thirds of those polled said her ascension to the presidency was legal.
Eduardo Leaño, a political science professor at the Public University in El Alto, said the new president brought peace after the initial spate of violence. With moderate MAS legislators, she also passed a law that would lead to an independent electoral board to organize the new presidential election.
Still, Mr. Morales’s supporters in Congress are trying to pave the way for his return to Bolivia from Argentina. And they are promoting an amnesty bill to shield him from prosecution for the alleged electoral fraud.
Ms. Añez predicted the constitutional court would strike down an amnesty. She added that government prosecutors are investigating Mr. Morales for sedition, terrorism and other crimes related to the post-election violence, accusations he denies.
“He has a lot to answer for,” she said.