Americas

Bolivia’s Evo Morales resigns amid fraud allegations, growing protests

Evo Morales — the man who rose from being a community organizer and coca farmer to one of Bolivia’s most enduring and powerful presidents — resigned on Sunday, amid a growing backlash sparked by a troubled Oct. 20 presidential election.

In a short televised address, Morales, 60, said he was stepping down for the good of the South American nation and blamed the opposition for pushing a coup and fueling the violence that has swept the country for the last three weeks.

But even as he stepped down, he remained defiant.

“The fight is not over. The humble and poor…will continue this fight for equality and peace,” he said. “The oligarchy is conspiring against our democracy.”

Morales’ resignation came just a few hours after he tried to appease the nation by calling for new elections. But the offer fell on deaf ears and his fate seemed sealed when the military joined demands that he step down.

Things began falling apart for Morales over the weekend, as police units rebelled and the armed forces said they would not suppress growing demonstrations. On Saturday protesters burned the homes of Morales’ sister and two ruling party governors.

Then, on Sunday morning, the Organization of American States released the results of an audit of last month’s presidential election that had purportedly handed Morales an unprecedented fourth term. The damning report found the electoral process was “seriously” flawed and said the election should be annulled and held again.

Morales responded by asking congress to appoint new members of the national electoral board and said he would push ahead with a new vote.

“By calling for new national elections, we guarantee that the people will have a free, democratic and peaceful vote to choose their new officials and new political actors,” he said.

The announcement marked an abrupt change for Morales, who had maintained that he won last month’s election outright and had been accusing protesters and his critics of being “fascist coup mongers.”

As his chief rival and the U.S. State Department asked him to step down Sunday, he insisted he’d serve out his term through Jan. 20.

Later in the day, however, the head of the Armed Forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, said Morales should step down in the name of “peace” and “stability,” and “for the good of our Bolivia.”

Shortly afterward, Morales boarded the presidential aircraft and announced his resignation. Regional media reported late Sunday that he was planning on traveling to Argentina.

In addition to Morales, Vice President Alvaro García Linera stepped down, as did the heads of the senate and the house, the next in line of succession. Jeanine Añez, the second vice president of the Bolivian Senate, told local radio she would be assuming the presidency and convening congress on Monday to determine next steps.

“It’s pretty unclear as to who is in charge right now, but the police and the military have sided with us for the last four days already and we trust that they will keep it as peaceful as we want it to be,” said Jhanisse Vaca Daza, the co-founder of Rios de Pie, an activist group that has been promoting non-violent anti-government protests.

She said that after Morales resigned, celebrations broke out on the streets of La Paz but many had gone home to avoid confrontations with pro-government groups.

“This is pretty historic what has happened in Bolivia,” Vaca Daza said, saying that the 20 days of protests had been largely non-violent with only three reported deaths.

Colombia late Sunday called for an emergency meeting of the OAS Permanent Council to address the crisis.

Analysts said Sunday’s OAS report was critical to dismantling Morales’ claims that he’d won last month vote. The 13-page document outlined serious flaws in the entire process.

“In the four categories that were reviewed (technology, chain of custody, integrity of the ballots and statistical projections) we have found irregularities that run from very serious to suspicious,” the OAS said.

The OAS General Secretary’s office went further, saying the vote was irredeemably flawed and that “the first round of elections should be held again as soon as there are enough guarantees in place.”

Phantom Server

One of the core problems was the online system that tallied and reported votes. On election night, with 83 percent of the vote counted, the system showed Morales was in the lead but not by enough to avoid a runoff against his nearest rival Carlos Mesa. However, the vote-counting platform went off-line for 23 hours, and when it was restored, Morales’ lead had grown enough to give him a first-round victory.

The OAS said electoral authorities couldn’t explain the interruption. In addition, auditors found that a previously unreported computer server, named B020, began processing the results when the system came back online.

“The server was not registered on any of the reports given to us by the [electoral] tribunal and all of the actors omitted its existence until it was detected by OAS auditors,” the report found.

Winning in the first round was critical for Morales, as analysts had said that he’d likely lose a runoff facing an opposition united behind Mesa.

Morales, a charismatic indigenous leader, rose to power last decade along with the likes of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador and was considered one of the leading proponents of South America’s unique brand of populism and socialism. Unlike his counterparts, however, Bolivia saw strong growth on the back of Morales’ business-friendly policies.

But he was also accused of adopting increasingly authoritarian tactics and trampling the constitution in order to dismantle term limits and stay in power.

“We categorically condemn this coup d’etat against our brother president,” Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro said in a statement. Mexico and Cuba also decried what they called a military coup.

It’s unclear what will happen next in Bolivia or if and when new presidential elections will be held.

On Sunday, Morales said he hoped his resignation would calm the nation.

“Our great desire,” he said, “is for peace to return.”

Jim Wyss covers Latin America for the Miami Herald and was part of the team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the “Panama Papers.” He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2005.
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