LA PAZ – Bolivia’s former President Evo Morales cannot run as a candidate in any new elections, the country’s interim leader said Thursday, as supporters of the ousted president demonstrated for his return from asylum in Mexico.
“Evo: Friend, the people are with you!” shouted protesters in the city of Sacaba.
They had come overnight from Chapare, a coca-growing region where Morales became a prominent union leader before he became Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Soldiers blocked them from reaching the nearby city of Cochabamba, where Morales’ supporters and foes have clashed for weeks.
Many protesters waved the national flag and the multicolor “Wiphala” flag that represents indigenous peoples.
“We want respect,” said Maura Trujillo, a 52-year-old coca farmer who wore a colorful traditional billowing skirt and a hat commonly worn by Quechua women.
In the capital of La Paz, some gasoline stations ran out of supply because of street blockades in the nearby city of El Alto, a pro-Morales stronghold that is a major distribution point for fuel.
Jeanine Añez, a Senate deputy leader who claimed the interim presidency, was moving to establish authority in the turbulent country. She announced that Morales, who resigned Sunday after allegations of election fraud, could not participate in elections again and criticized Mexico’s government for allowing Morales to rally support from Mexico City.
“We have to let the Mexican government know that cannot be happening,” Añez said.
Mexico, however, said Morales has a right to make political statements.
“Asylum recipients’ freedom of expression should not be subject to any greater limitations than those that would apply to any Mexican citizen,” Mexico’s foreign relations department said.
Morales resigned on Sunday at military prompting, following massive nationwide protests over suspected vote-rigging in an Oct. 20 election in which he claimed to have won a fourth term in office. An Organization of American States audit of the vote found widespread irregularities.
Much of the opposition to Morales sprang from his refusal to accept a referendum that would have forbidden him from running for a new term.
In the wake of Morales’ resignation, it was unclear whether Bolivian election officials would have to formally bar him from running in a new election.
The pro-Morales Movement Toward Socialism party “has all the right to participate in elections, they can look for candidates,” Añez said.
Bolivia’s new interim government has begun winning some international recognition but faced challenges to its legitimacy at home.
Mexico welcomed Morales this week after he resigned. Mexico’s government referred to the ouster as a coup d’etat, as have other left-leaning administrations in Latin America. But Añez has gained recognition from other regional governments, including Brazil, Guatemala and Colombia, as well as Britain and the United States.
Añez also announced she would recognize Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as that country’s legitimate leader, joining the U.S. and 50 other countries in repudiating socialist President Nicolás Maduro, an ally of Morales.
But the new Bolivian leadership was focused on challenges at home.
Members of the Movement Toward Socialism party, who dominate both houses of Congress, held legislative sessions aimed at questioning the legitimacy of Añez, who had been no higher than fifth in the line of succession before Morales resigned. She won recognition because those above her, all Morales backers, also resigned — though some later tried to recant their resignations.
In addition to accusing Morales of inciting violent dissent, the new government took aim at some of his allies at home.
Añez’s new interior minister, Arturo Murillo, said Wednesday that he had spoken with police and ordered a hunt for his predecessor, Juan Ramón Quintana — using the Spanish word for hunt that applies to chasing an animal.
“Why is it a hunt? Because he is an animal who is killing people,” Murillo said. Quintana apparently had vanished from sight.
“Those who deal in sedition, as of tomorrow, take care,” he warned.
Añez needs to win recognition from more Bolivians, stabilize the nation and organize new elections within 90 days, rebuilding after weeks of violent protests against Morales following the disputed election.
“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.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is sending a personal envoy to Bolivia to support efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The new envoy, Jean Arnault, was traveling to Bolivia on Thursday, according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
In Brazil, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting of the BRICS group of emerging economies that the situation in Bolivia is alarming.
“They have no leadership at all. It's similar to the situation in Libya, though there is no direct armed intervention. However, the country is close to chaos,” Putin said.
The interim government on Thursday gave journalists a tour of a modern 29-story presidential office building with a heliport built by Morales and that his foes had criticized as one of his excesses. The empty presidential suite on the 24th floor contained a wall painting showing leaders including Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro; a reading room with several biographies about Morales; a few items of clothing in the main bedroom; and a jacuzzi.
Morales upended politics in this nation long ruled by light-skinned descendants of Europeans by reversing deep-rooted inequality. The economy benefited from 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 communities.
Although some supporters became disenchanted by his insistence on holding on to power, Morales remains popular, especially among other members of his native Aymara ethnic group.
Morales’ backers, who hold a two-thirds majority in Congress, boycotted the session that Añez called Tuesday night to formalize her claim to the presidency, preventing a quorum.
She claimed power anyway and swore in a Cabinet, saying the constitution did not require congressional approval. The military, police and opposition parties accepted her. Bolivia’s top constitutional court laid out the legal justification for Añez taking the presidency, without mentioning her by name.
But other legal experts questioned her claim, saying at least some of her steps required a session of Congress.
Associated Press writers Carlos Valdez and Paola Flores in La Paz contributed.