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Evo Morales flees crisis-torn Bolivia after deadly clashes

Posted at 9:59 AM, Nov 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-12 11:01:12-05

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Evo Morales, who transformed Bolivia as its first indigenous president, was flying to exile in Mexico on Tuesday after weeks of violent protests, leaving behind a confused power vacuum in the Andean nation.

Morales flew out on a Mexican government plane late Monday hours after being granted asylum. As his supporters and foes fought on the streets of Bolivia's capital, an opposition leader laid out a possible - but still uncertain - path toward new elections in the wake of the president's resignation.

Prodded by military leaders, Morales stepped down Sunday following weeks of widespread protests fed by allegations of electoral fraud in the Oct. 20 presidential election that he claimed to have won.

Resignations by every other constitutionally designated successor left unclear who would take his place and how.

The Senate's second vice president, opposition politician Jeanine Añez, called a legislative session on Tuesday to formally accept Morales' resignation and choose an interim replacement.

Under the plan, she would take temporary control of the Senate, making her next in line for the presidency.

"The country is experiencing dramatic moments and all parliamentarians have the obligation to give certainty to the country," she told a news conference.

But it wasn't immediately clear if the session would occur or if it a majority of senators would go along. Morales backers still have a majority in the body.

Morales' departure was a dramatic fall for the one-time llama shepherd from the Bolivian highlands and former coca growers' union leader who as president helped lift millions out poverty, increased social rights and presided over nearly 14 years of stability and high economic growth in South America's poorest country.

In the end, though, his downfall was prompted by his insistence on holding onto power despite a public referendum against continuous reelections.

"It pains me to leave the country for political reasons, but I'll always be concerned," Morales said on Twitter. "l'll return soon, with more strength and energy."

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard published a photo of Morales holding the flag of Mexico, saying that the plane had left Bolivia and that Morales was safe.

Ebrard said Mexican diplomats had to scramble to arrange a flight path for the plane because some nations initially closed airspace to it. The plane stopped in Paraguay to refuel and was due to arrive in Mexico later on Tuesday.

Angry supporters of the socialist leader set barricades ablaze to close some roads leading to the country's main airport Monday, while his foes blocked most of the streets leading to the capital's main square in front of Congress and the presidential palace. Police urged residents of La Paz to stay in their homes and authorities said the army would join in policing efforts to avoid an escalation of violence.

Local media reported that Morales supporters were marching on La Paz from the nearby city of El Alto, a Morales stronghold, to try to break the street blockades thrown up by his opponents and reach the capital's main square.

But the tensions were defused after Gen. Williams Kaliman, the chief of the armed forces, announced a joint police-military operation in a television address. He said the hope was to "avoid bloodshed and mourning of the Bolivian family," and he urged Bolivians to help restore peace.

"It was a night of fear. I couldn't sleep and I just kept praying," said Yorka López, a homemaker, who handed out warm coffee to neighbors who had stayed out throughout the night in the streets guarding homes and businesses.

Some sense of normalcy was returning to some cities Tuesday, with businesses rolling up the metal sheets that had guarded them from looting in past days, but some services remained interrupted.

Ronald Arias said he had left his home in El Alto and walked for three hours to his job in downtown La Paz because the cable car connecting the cities was suspended or security reasons and the barricades blocked access to public transportation.

Like Morales, Arias is also a native Aymara, and he said he was proud of the indigenous former leader. Thanks to him, his parents, who live in the countryside gained access for the first time to running water and gas for cooking.

"I was so saddened by his resignation," he said. "A lot of people in El Alto shed tears for the president."

Morales' presidency, the longest among serving leaders in the region and the longest ever in Bolivia, ended abruptly Sunday, hours after Morales had accepted calls for a new election by an Organization of American States team. The team reported a "heap of observed irregularities" in the Oct. 20 election whose official results showed Morales getting just enough votes to avoid a runoff that analysts said he could lose against a united opposition.

Morales stepped aside only after the military chief called on him to quit, saying that was needed to restore peace and stability. His vice president also resigned as did the Senate president. The only other official listed by the constitution as a presidential successor, the head of the lower house, had resigned earlier.

Morales called the ouster a coup - a description echoed by his allies and others across the region worried at the military's role in deciding who should be president.

But his critics said the ouster was caused by a popular revolt, not a coup.

"Academics and the press have been very critical of the Bolivian military. But this might be the only time in Bolivian military history that the military is on the right side for once," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist at Florida International University.

"There's nothing here that remotely mirrors a traditional military coup," Gamarra added. "Perhaps this is a time that the military is playing a role that it should play. It's not intervening in what are essentially civilian affairs."

Morales, who was from the poor Andean highlands, had promised to remain austere when he became president in 2006. But shortly after, he bought a new airplane and built a 26-story presidential palace with a heliport.

"He fought poverty, he lifted our economy, but perhaps he wasn't well advised," said España Villegas, a linguist who watched televised replays of Morales' resignation while awaiting a flight at the airport.

Morales ran for a fourth term after refusing to accept the results of a referendum that upheld term limits for the president - restrictions thrown out by a top court that critics contend was stacked in his favor.