Bolivia’s interim leader sparks criticism with desire to keep job
After becoming Bolivia’s caretaker president Jeanine Áñez said it would be “dishonest” to run for the office. Now she has changed her mind.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the conservative Ms Áñez explained why she might be the best candidate for the opposition in a new presidential vote in May as Bolivia seeks to move on from Evo Morales, whose 14 years of socialist rule ended last year leaving a deeply polarised country.
“I am here to continue the process and to ensure that this vote is not dispersed and to take care of democracy, take care of everything that the Bolivian people fought for,” she told the Financial Times during an interview in the presidential palace in La Paz.
“What I would like is unity for Bolivians. And what I would like is that all this effort is not in vain. That’s why I’m going to fight, that’s why I’m going to commit a lot to Bolivia because I think it would be much easier, in my case, to stay [as interim president] in this transition stage.”
Bolivia is trying to move on from turbulent months which left more than 30 people dead after Mr Morales claimed to have won a fourth consecutive presidential election in a poll in October. The opposition alleged widespread electoral fraud and the Organisation of American States found evidence of irregularities.
Under pressure from the military, the main union federation and popular discontent, Mr Morales quit and fled, first to Mexico and then Argentina.
Two days after Mr Morales left Ms Áñez, a former backbench senator, took over as president, based on her being the highest-ranking official in the line of succession following the resignation of Mr Morales’s vice-president and the head of the Senate.
But her decision to stand in the upcoming election, which she announced late on Friday, has caused division. Jorge Quiroga, an influential former president who played a key role in her rise to office and is a candidate himself, said Ms Áñez had provoked “pain and disappointment” by deciding to run.
Carlos Mesa, a former president who challenged Mr Morales in October and is also running again in May, said she would “delegitimise” her reason for being in office and feed the narrative of those who called Mr Morales’s fall, and her ascent to power, a coup d’état.
Roxana Lizárraga, Ms Áñez’s communications minister, resigned in protest, saying the interim president’s intention “differs very little from the practices of Evo Morales”.
Mr Morales’s leftist MAS party leads opinion polls with 26 per cent support and Ms Áñez — Latin America’s only sitting female leader — paints her decision as the best way to guarantee that a splintered opposition does not allow the return of the former president’s allies. Luis Arce, Mr Morales’s former finance minister, will take on Ms Áñez and at least three other candidates.
“There is much concern that a return of the Movement to Socialism would be a return of violence, a return of hatred, and of revenge for us not allowing them to extend their power. So we are exhausting all efforts so the vote against them is not dispersed,” said Ms Áñez, a 52-year-old lawyer and former television presenter.
“I am . . . going to do everything on [my] part for this process to continue and [to try to make sure that] the situation of violence and all that terror we have lived does not happen again in Bolivia.”
A devout Catholic, Ms Áñez slams Mr Morales as an “atheist” and a “machista”.
“I didn’t like when in my identity card it said ‘occupation: housewife’,” she said, painting her leadership as a sign of more equality in a traditionally male-dominated country. “I have always fought for women’s rights . . . now women suddenly have the right to an opportunity.”
Since taking office in November she has shown a taste for exercising power. In foreign relations she has renegotiated gas contracts with Brazil and hardened Bolivia’s line against Cuba and Venezuela while moving her country closer to the US. At home she has obliterated Mr Morales’s name and image from state institutions and established a new electoral tribunal that is now put into question even by María Galindo, a fiery feminist and longtime Morales critic who mocked the blonde president as “a Barbiefied girl”.
Unpublished opinion polls show Ms Áñez’s popularity at 42 per cent, just above that of Mr Morales. Many observers feel that she has been pushed to run by her close advisers including Arturo Murillo, her hardline interior minister. He said her candidacy was Bolivia’s “only salvation”.
Observers are also concerned that Ms Áñez may be overstepping her mandate. A European diplomat described the arrest and investigation of former members of Mr Morales’s government — nine of them remain holed up at the Mexican residence in La Paz — as a “savage persecution, not something an interim government does”.
Ms Áñez rejects the notion. “The truth is that we are trying to respect the judicial processes. Wherever we look at, we find there was corruption, in fact, the people who were in charge of the government were violent and in a difficult moment for the country they encouraged violence, terror, looting,” she said, adding that Bolivians want “justice to be done” and “precedents to be set”.