At least eight people were killed and dozens injured in the Bolivian city of Sacaba on Friday, after security forces fired on supporters of ousted president Evo Morales, according to the Associated Press.
With tensions running high following Morales’ resignation last Sunday, demonstrators took to the streets to decry the nation’s interim president, Jeanine Añez. The protesters, made up largely of members of Bolivia’s indigenous population, view Añez’s rule as illegitimate and are calling for Morales to return. The former president has been granted asylum in Mexico.
Protesters said the violence began after they tried to cross a military checkpoint in Sacaba, near Cochabamba, according to the AP. Presidency Minister Jerjes Justiniano said the protesters were armed with “military weapons.”
“It’s unclear precisely what the circumstances were, but the general perception here is that security forces opened fire on the crowd,” NPR’s Philip Reeves, reporting from La Paz, said. “Today they’re holding funerals and wakes. There will be more protests, more emotions, more violence and more tension.”
The violence in Sacaba is part of a larger pro-Morales movement sweeping the country, as his supporters within the indigenous population of Bolivia protest Morales’ departure from office. Morales, a socialist and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, resigned under pressure from the military three weeks after declaring himself the winner of an election that was marred by widespread allegations of fraud. He has since called his exit a “coup.”
Protests are continuing to rage on in La Paz, El Alto and Sacaba, and the Associated Press reported that 13 people have died since the protests began, with many more injured.
The U.S. State Department has issued a “do not travel” warning for Bolivia and put out a security alert for citizens in La Paz and El Alto, warning that the supply of gasoline and certain food items in those cities could be disrupted. Family members and non-essential U.S. employees were evacuated from the country on Nov. 12.
The question that now faces Bolivia and the international community: was Morales’ ouster a coup via military intervention, or a democratic movement following a rigged election?
If the election result had stood, it would have marked Morales’ fourth consecutive term as president. Although the 2009 Bolivian constitution – which Morales helped write and pass – only allows for two consecutive terms, the constitutional court ruled in 2013 that his first term didn’t count towards the term limit, since he had served it under the previous constitution.
In 2016, Morales narrowly lost a constitutional referendum that would have allowed him to run for a third term, but he appealed to the courts, which overturned the referendum and abolished term limits entirely, paving the way for last month’s election.
After declaring himself the winner of that vote, the Organization of American States found evidence of what it called “serious security flaws” and “clear manipulation” of a computer system that according to the OAS, ultimately affected the final count.
Morales first called for new elections to quell demonstrations over the outcome, but that wasn’t enough for protesters. After Morales lost support from the military and police, he announced his resignation. His vice president and the next two people in the line of succession all followed suit.
In the aftermath of the resignations, Añez, of the opposition Democrat Social Movement, declared herself interim president on Tuesday, setting the stage for the ongoing turmoil.
Morales supporters are critical of Añez’s European ancestry, fearing that indigenous groups in Bolivia – the Aymara and Quechua, among others – will lose standing among other religious and cultural groups. Many supporters carry the Wiphala flag, which Morales established as the dual flag of Bolivia, equal to the national flag. After declaring herself interim president, Añez spoke from the presidential palace in La Paz with a large bible in hand.
“The Bible has returned to the palace,” Añez said, wearing the green, yellow and red-striped sash of the Bolivian president.
In a now-deleted tweet from 2013, Añez referred to the Aymara New Year celebrations as “satanic” and said that “God cannot be replaced.”
Añez faced immediate opposition from the Bolivian congress, dominated by members of Morales’ socialist party. After assuming her new role, her ability to declare herself president without a quorum in the senate was taken to the constitutional courts. The courts, however, approved Añez’s maneuver.
Although her main responsibility is to bring about new elections in 90 days, she has already severed relations with Nicolas Maduro’s disputed government in Venezuela and expelled Cuban doctors and Venezuelan diplomats from the country.
Her rule has been recognized by the United States and the United Kingdom, but Russia and Mexico back Morales and his claims of a coup.
Morales himself may run in the new elections three months from now. From Mexico, he told reporters that he was “ready to return” if needed, but Añez has barred him from running in any new elections, raising fears about the prospect of more bloody conflicts to come over the succession of power and the standing of indigenous populations.