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Evo Morales interview: From Mexico, former leader says Bolivia’s congress will decide whether he’s still president

Bolivia's exiled leader Evo Morales told The Washington Post he might return and try to finish his term as president if the legislature rejects his resignation. (Video: Alexa Ard, Luis Velarde, Cinthya Chavez/The Washington Post)

MEXICO CITY — Bolivia’s exiled leader, Evo Morales, is raising the stakes in one of Latin America’s biggest political crises, saying he might return to his country and try to finish out his term if the legislature decides to reject his resignation.

His remarks indicated how the president — an icon of the left — was determined to continue to play a major role in Bolivia. His return, however, could exacerbate a bitter fight for power between his supporters and opponents after a disputed election. At least 10 people have died in clashes that have swept the country.

Morales stepped down Sunday, under pressure from the military. His ouster has divided the continent, with some viewing him as an authoritarian who tried to stay in power through fraud, and others decrying a coup.

Was the resignation of Bolivia's Evo Morales due to a coup? Washington Post South American bureau chief Anthony Faiola says that depends on your political view. (Video: Alexa Ard/The Washington Post)

“My resignation is in the hands of the congress,” the three-term leader said in an interview Friday in Mexico. “If they reject it, I continue to be the president. If they approve it, I’m not. That’s the legal interpretation.”

He said that while he was in political exile, he did not regard himself as president — “although I am eager to return to be with the people, who are suffering a coup d’etat.”

His party has a two-thirds majority in congress, so it could easily vote to reinstate him to finish his term, which was to end in January.

The crisis exploded after the president claimed victory in an Oct. 20 election that a team of international experts blasted as riddled with irregularities. After the resignations of Morales and his top allies, a senior opposition senator declared herself acting president in a session boycotted by the ruling party.

Demonstrators opposed to Morales ransacked his home and set fire to the houses of senior members of his Movement for Socialism. His supporters were accused of burning the homes of government critics.

After years in which Morales sought to elevate the stature of the country’s sizable indigenous population, there has been a backlash from lighter-skinned, more affluent Bolivians. Police officers have torn patches celebrating the country’s indigenous heritage from their uniforms, and protesters have burned indigenous flags. Morales was the country’s first indigenous president. Some indigenous Bolivians, however, turned against Morales for clinging to power.

Morales said Friday that he was not planning to compete in the do-over election expected in the next few months. He said he hoped that the United Nations would lead a mediation effort bringing together his movement and its opponents.

“Our main desire is pacification” of the country, Morales said. “We want to work with our legislators, and those of the opposition, to establish the basis for a dialogue.”

But he made clear that, although he had fled Bolivia on a Mexican military jet, he was not planning to abandon his influential role in his country.

“Our fight is for justice, and our plan is to return to bring peace and to reach an agreement with the right wing to help the Bolivian people move forward,” Morales said.

He made clear he saw the political crisis not as a simple electoral dispute, but a clash of ideologies and economic interests. Morales was seen as a pragmatic socialist, presiding over years of strong economic growth and poverty reduction.

His supporters “don’t accept coups, nor the economic policies of privatization” of state industries that are backed by conservatives, he said. “This isn’t about Evo; the public is facing a debate about the economic model.”

Morales’s return to Bolivia could sharply increase tensions.

A staunchly conservative opposition senator, Jeanine Áñez, has been recognized as interim president by the United States and several other nations. The country’s constitutional court has said she did not require congressional approval to take office.

She said Friday that Morales could come back to Bolivia — but if he did, he could face charges.

“He has to answer to justice for electoral fraud,” she said.

Morales’s bid for a fourth term was highly controversial; he lost a popular referendum seeking to run again, although a court later permitted his candidacy. His opponents cried foul when Morales’s support surged near the end of the vote count.

Morales invited a team of technical experts from a hemispheric group, the Organization of American States, or OAS, to review the vote. They issued a preliminary report Sunday listing numerous irregularities — including phony signatures on vote-tally sheets, and “clear manipulation” of the computer system used to transmit vote totals.

In the interview, Morales rejected any responsibility for the irregularities.

“I’ve never asked the institutions of government to help me. I’ve always asked for respect for the institutions and legality. I never ordered fraud,” he said.

Despite the flawed election, Morales has been hailed as a hero in Mexico. Its leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, sent a military jet to fetch him, and has provided him with bodyguards and housing on a military base.

Under Bolivian law, new elections are supposed to be scheduled within 90 days. Morales said he thought it would be difficult to pull that off — “because the people are mobilized to reject the authorities” currently in power.

Still, he said, it was important to reach some sort of mediated agreement with his opponents.

“If there’s no agreement with the right wing, Bolivia will be ungovernable,” he said.

Rachelle Krygier in Miami contributed to this report.

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