Evo Morales’ backers leaving barricades after Bolivia deal

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A female supporter of Bolivian President Evo Morales shows her support during a march in La Paz, Bolivia, Oct. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

LA PAZ – Supporters of ousted President Evo Morales began abandoning barricades set up on roads leading into Bolivia’s main cities after an agreement was reached late Friday to hold a new election and launch talks to end unrest that has claimed at least 32 lives.

The Andean nation has been in upheaval since Morales proclaimed himself the outright winner of its Oct. 20 presidential election despite widespread protests over allegations of vote fraud. Prompted by the military, Morales resigned on Nov. 10 and went into exile in Mexico, saying he was the victim of a coup d’état.

Morales’ supporters then began a wave of protests and highway blockades to demand the return of Bolivia’s first indigenous president and the resignation of self-proclaimed interim leader Jeanine Añez. The road blockades had led to food and fuel shortages in cities.

Late Friday, Yerko Nuñez, public works minister with the interim government, said an agreement had been reached to hold a “dialogue to pacify the country.”

“They have asked for guarantees and we are going to give them to them,” he told reporters, without saying what guarantees Morales’ supporters had demanded. The dialogue would start Saturday afternoon.

Minutes earlier, politicians from Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party and the interim government said a deal had been reached to send to congress a bill to convoke a new presidential election.

Sen. Oscar Ortiz of the interim government said the agreement would annul the Oct. 20 election. The bill will be introduced to the senate Saturday morning and if approved there, it will be sent to the chamber of deputies.

A date for a new election has not yet been set, but it should be within three months of when the interim government took office following Morales’ resignation.

Television images showed vehicles passing through road barricades late Friday and cars moving about at a gas plant in the city of El Alto, near La Paz, that had been a conflict point.

A statement from pro-Morales social organizations instructed their forces to withdraw from the barricades but to maintain an emergency footing until congress approved the new elections.

Sen. Shirley Franco said neither Morales nor his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, would be allowed to run in the new election. The exclusion is meant to honor the results of a 2016 referendum that rejected Morales’ bid to change Bolivia’s constitution so he could seek a fourth term.

Efraín Chambi, who is a member of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party, said that “the constitution should be followed.”

Early Friday, the interim government accused Morales of terrorism and sedition for purportedly organizing highway blockades intended to prevent food from reaching some cities.

Acting Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said the complaint relates to a video in which Morales is supposedly heard in a phone call coordinating the blockades from Mexico. Murillo said Bolivia’s government is seeking a maximum penalty, which is between 15 and 20 years in prison.

Morales has said the video is a “montage” by his opponents.

Juan Lanchipa, Bolivia’s attorney general, confirmed that an investigation into the ex-president and the recording has been launched.

“This audio will be verified in Argentina, and we’re also asking the telecom company to confirm where the call comes from,” he said.

The blockades in Bolivia have hindered the free flow of goods throughout the country, in particular La Paz, where the government is located.

Morales upended politics in this indigenous-majority nation long ruled by light-skinned descendants of Europeans when he took office by vowing to reverse deep-rooted inequality. The economy benefited from a boom in commodity prices 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.

But many people became disenchanted by his insistence on holding on to power, seeking a fourth term after 14 years in office. Much of the opposition to Morales sprang from his refusal to accept a referendum that upheld term limits that barred him from seeking a fourth term in office. He got the courts to declare the limits a violation of his human rights to seek office.