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Americas Evo Morales of Bolivia Accepts Asylum in Mexico

Evo Morales of Bolivia Accepts Asylum in Mexico

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LA PAZ, Bolivia — Evo Morales, the former president of Bolivia who resigned under pressure from street protests and the military, was granted asylum in Mexico on Monday, setting up his departure from the country at a time when it is deeply polarized and leaderless.

Mr. Morales, who stepped down on Sunday, was granted refuge “for humanitarian reasons and in light of the urgent situation Bolivia is facing,” said Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, in a televised address.

Mr. Morales left office after weeks of growing unrest over a disputed presidential election and after the military indicated it would support the people in the streets calling for him to step down.

Bolivia now faces a power vacuum because several politicians in the line of succession resigned after Mr. Morales did. Lawmakers in La Paz, the country’s most important city, scrambled to take charge as the streets emptied out, with residents leaving work early and heading indoors, fearing for their safety.

Hundreds of supporters of Mr. Morales made their way on late afternoon Monday toward the center of La Paz from the mountains surrounding the city, some of them armed with sticks. As they approached, their chants of “here we go, civil war” could be heard echoing above the city.

The police said the armed group had vandalized police offices, causing panic in some neighborhoods where people blocked their doors with old furniture to protect stores and houses.

After receiving requests for help from the national police and civilian politicians, the armed forces announced Monday night they would mobilize to defend gas, water and electricity services around the capital. Army and police units will also begin joint patrols around the city, according to the national police.

Mr. Morales, who said he was forced to resign in what he called a “coup,” softened his language by Monday afternoon and urged an end to violence in Twitter messages posted from an undisclosed location.

“We can’t have a confrontation between Bolivian brothers,” he said. “I am making an urgent appeal to resolve any differences with dialogue.”

Late on Monday night, Mr. Morales posted a message on Twitter acknowledging that he was on his way out of the country, thanking Mexico for giving him asylum and expressing sorrow that he had to abandon the country “for political reasons.” But he added: “I will return soon with more strength and energy.”

After the resignations by top government officials in the line of succession, a leading opposition politician said she was ready to take the reins of power until new elections could be held.

The politician, Jeanine Añez Chavez, the Senate’s second vice president, appeared on television Monday morning before boarding a plane for La Paz, sobbing as she described the chaos of the night before. “Bolivia doesn’t deserve this, all these deaths and destruction,” she said, before promising a quick transition “that is absolutely necessary to return to a democracy.”

But it is unclear if she would get the necessary approval from the national assembly, which is controlled by Mr. Morales’s supporters

Mr. Morales appeared to be in hiding in a province where he has traditionally had much support. Late Sunday he said on Twitter that the police were seeking to arrest him “illegally” and that “violent groups” had broken into his house. He was not home at the time.

A video circulating on social media showed dozens of people exploring what was reported to be Mr. Morales’s ransacked home, with furniture toppled, items broken and political slogans spray painted on walls in red.

Ms. Añez, a senator from the opposition Democratic Union party, said she would need a quorum in the assembly to approve a transfer of power, and Mr. Morales’s party, the Movement for Socialism, controls both houses. His supporters in the assembly may try to block the appointment of an interim president using procedural rules, leaving a vacuum at the top of the government.

Carlos Mesa, a former president who was the losing candidate in the recent presidential election — widely considered fraudulent — said members of the opposition were attempting to appeal to the patriotism of lawmakers who have backed Mr. Morales.

“They have no reason to believe they will be persecuted,” Mr. Mesa said at a news conference Monday morning.

One of the principal leaders of the demonstrators, Luis Fernando Camacho, in a video distributed over social media, rejected the description that what had happened in Bolivia was a coup, insisting that what took place was peaceful resistance in the streets. He also said constitutional procedure would be followed to bring Bolivia back to normal.

“We don’t bring down government,” he said. “We liberated a people.”

Voice and text messages asking members of Mr. Morales’s party for comment were not returned.

On Monday morning, much of downtown was blockaded by demonstrators peacefully demanding that the assembly select an interim president. Lawmakers from around Bolivia attempted to return to La Paz to approve the resignation of Mr. Morales and his vice president, and begin the process of selecting a caretaker government.

The military attempted to speed up the process by offering helicopter transport to some legislators. Opposition leaders said they were working for a rapid transition. “We need an expeditious resolution,” said Luis Vasquez, a former Social Democratic senator.

But the country’s rugged geography made travel difficult, and as the day progressed, tension escalated in La Paz and around Congress.

By Monday afternoon, the assembly was cleared of lawmakers and their staff as reports circulated that pro-Morales activists were heading downtown from El Alto, a working-class, largely Indigenous city adjacent to La Paz that had been a bastion of support for Mr. Morales. More than 400 police equipped with tear gas launchers and a water cannon truck stood guard around Congress and surrounding government buildings, which were also empty.

A few civilian supporters of the opposition patrolled their own barricades of wire and corrugated metal around the downtown, saying they were guarding against a counter-coup by the Morales forces. Otherwise, the downtown are was empty and quiet.

By nightfall the police and army had apparently been able to block the El Alto protesters from reaching the center of the city, though sirens and small explosions rang out across the city.

Drinking water was cut off to parts of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia’s second-largest city, but the reason for the cutoff was not known.

There was little to no violence in Santa Cruz, a center of the opposition. A festival-like mood prevailed there, with people celebrating on the streets and waving flags.

The political crisis began when Mr. Morales, a leftist who came to power more than a decade ago and was once widely popular, claimed victory in the Oct. 20 election, which protesters and international observers suspected was rigged. In 2016, a court packed with loyalists allowed him to do away with the Constitution’s two-term limit, allowing him to run for office indefinitely.

For weeks after the disputed election results, demonstrations paralyzed much of the country, and groups supporting the president have roughed up protesters.

But Friday night, some police units broke from the government and joined the protesters. On Sunday, the rebellion spread to the military, with the commander of Bolivia’s armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, calling for Mr. Morales to step down.

Daniel Victor contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

While several left-leaning governments across the region, including Venezuela’s, Cuba’s, and Mexico’s, joined Mr. Morales in denouncing the pressure that led to his resignation as a coup, President Trump welcomed the news, saying “Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.”

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