Before she proclaimed herself Bolivia’s new president and greeted cheering supporters in La Paz with a Bible in hand, Jeanine Áñez made a public promise. Her “only objective” as interim leader, the 52-year old conservative pledged, would be to call new elections.
In just seven days, the U.S.-backed leader has replaced Bolivia’s top military brass, cabinet ministers and the heads of major state-owned companies with appointees of her own. Her administration has threatened to arrest “seditious” lawmakers, and ejected allies of the old government including Venezuelan diplomats and Cuban doctors. Her new foreign minister announced Bolivia’s exit from the Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, a union of socialist nations based in Caracas.
As supporters of Morales took to the streets last week to object, Áñez issued a presidential decree granting security forces immunity from prosecution for “participating in operations to reestablish internal order.” Within hours, a confrontation between soldiers and Morales supporters near Cochabamba left nine dead.
Áñez stepped in last week after the sudden resignation of Morales and other senior socialists amid accusations of election fraud. Lawmakers from Morales’ Movement for Socialism party still hold legislative majorities in La Paz, but they boycotted a session called by the opposition to choose a successor. In the absence of a quorum, the opposition backed Áñez, the fiercely anti-Morales vice president of the senate. The United States, among other nations, quickly welcomed her. Others, including Mexico and Cuba, did not.
“President Morales destroyed institutions,” Áñez told the BBC. “That’s what all 21st-century socialists do. We saw that movie in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. And that’s the fear that all Bolivians have.”
But she now leads a nation where socialists won landslide victories in 2009 and 2014, and where Morales, currently in Mexico, retains a large base of support. The indigenous leader, an icon of the Latin American left, has decried Áñez’s ascent as part of the “right-wing coup” that he says ousted him from office.
Áñez and the opposition counter that Morales’s ouster was the proper outcome for an election stolen by a corrupt and power-hungry rabble-rouser. Morales, they say, is now instigating violence from afar, complicating her efforts to “pacify” the nation and set a date for new elections.
Under Bolivia’s constitution, those elections must be called within 90 days of Morales’s resignation. On Monday, Áñez said she would set a date “soon.”
One thing is certain. At a time when Bolivia is plunging deeper into a deadly constitutional crisis, an interim leader meant to provide stability has emerged as one of Bolivia’s most polarizing figures. Analysts say her contested legitimacy and ideological bent are complicating the process of holding free and fair elections that can be recognized by all Bolivians.
“It was never going to be easy to achieve a transition,” said Jorge Dulon, a political scientist based in La Paz. “The socialists still have a lot of power and popularity, and they’re betting on further confrontation to push for a Morales comeback.”
Áñez’s government, he said, “has responded with the use of force, and a confrontational discourse that has not been adequate. It is causing more provocation, rather than reconciliation and dialogue.”
On Monday, the United Nations, the Catholic Church and the European Union all sought to broker talks aimed at defusing tensions. Morales supporters, meanwhile, have clashed with the military and set up roadblocks that have sparked food shortages in major cities.
The office of the national ombudsman said “grave acts of violence” had caused the death of 21 people in the last week, most of them killed “during interventions by the police and armed forces.”
The office cited the clash near Cochabamba and urged the government to “stop using armed security police and military forces.”
“We don’t want to keep counting deaths,” the office said. “That does no good to the chances of a dialogue or a peaceful discussion between the state and the people.”
Áñez has also stirred controversy for allegedly issuing tweets calling Morales a “poor Indian” and declaring an indigenous new year celebration “satanic.” The tweets were delated after she proclaimed herself president, and she has denied ever sending them, claiming a “conspiracy” against her. They remain accessible via the social media archive Wayback Machine.
“The politics of hate and racism, and of violent groups at the hands of the opposition, has returned to Bolivia,” Morales told The Washington Post last week. “This woman who says she is the president of Bolivia is not constitutional. She self-proclaimed herself.”
Áñez and her team have repeatedly defended their actions and blamed Morales and his socialists for the violence plaguing the nation. Áñez’s interior minister, Arturo Murillo, said Monday that his team had identified an assassination plot against her.
“Morales is causing violence in our country with the objective of clinging to power,” Áñez told CNN en Español. “We are using all our efforts to pacify the country, but there’s no dialogue because irrationality is what rules among [Morales supporters].”
The Bolivian Conference of Catholic Bishops on Monday called for a dialogue to “pacify the country” and “agree to conditions for new elections.” The conference urged politicians to “lower the tone of public discourse.”
The E.U. ambassador to Bolivia, León De La Torre Krais, said the country was “in delicate moments.” Speaking to reporters after meeting with Áñez on Sunday, he said his team was trying to “make a special effort to recover and consolidate democracy.”
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, expressed concern “that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms and standards governing the use of force, and with full respect for human rights.”
“The country is split and people on both sides of the political divide are extremely angry,” she said in a statement. “In a situation like this, repressive actions by the authorities will simply stoke that anger even further and are likely to jeopardize any possible avenue for dialogue.”