LA PAZ (Reuters) - Supporters of ousted Bolivian leader Evo Morales marched into the capital La Paz on Thursday carrying coffins of people killed in clashes with the military and police, drawing attention to the human cost of the crisis gripping the South American nation.
Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowds after demonstrators placed one protester’s coffin and an effigy of interim President Jeanine Anez on top of an armored military vehicle and tried to enter the square where the presidential palace is located, a Reuters witness said.
Anez, a former opposition Senator who took office in a power vacuum last week, has grappled with a wave of protests against her as she has tried to move the landlocked South American country past Morales’ nearly 14-year leftist rule.
At least 29 people have been killed in clashes since Morales resigned on Nov. 10 under pressure from protesters, civic leaders and security forces, after an international audit found serious irregularities in the vote-count of the Oct. 20 election that gave him an outright victory and fourth straight term.
Morales, who has been granted asylum in Mexico, has said he was toppled by a racist rightwing coup and has suggested he would return. On Thursday, he said on Twitter that an international “truth commission” would be formed to verify whether there was electoral fraud.
But lawmakers with Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party appeared to ready to move on without him. They have agreed to work with their opponents to pass a law to annul the Oct. 20 vote to forge a path toward new elections.
Some also called on the former president’s supporters to halt protests, something Morales has yet to do.
“We have to pacify the country. I want to publicly ask the population, the followers of the Movement for Socialism, to stop the protests and think about the new leaders in our political party,” Henry Cabrera, senior MAS member and vice president of the house of deputies, told Reuters.
Cabrera said MAS would contest the next elections with new, young candidates, and that Morales and his former vice president would not be among them.
Due to the crisis, credit ratings agency Fitch on Thursday downgraded Bolivia’s long-term debt to B+, from BB- previously. It said in a statement that the country’s outlook remains negative “due to downside risks to growth and macroeconomic stability from persisting social unrest.”
MAS has proposed new elections for Jan. 12, according to a draft bill seen by Reuters. Communications Minister Roxana Lizarraga said she thought elections before Jan. 20 were feasible.
Supporters of Anez have said she could schedule new elections without Congress by passing a supreme decree. But a deal with MAS lawmakers, who control two thirds of parliament, would help legitimize the next vote and government.
Bolivia’s new foreign minister, Karen Longaric, accused Morales of fanning tensions to destabilize the country so he could try to return and take control.
“The country cannot be pacified as long as Evo Morales does not abandon that aggressive attitude of confrontation, of provocation,” Longaric told Reuters on Thursday. She also blamed radical armed groups for instigating clashes in protests.
Human rights activists have been alarmed by the spike in deaths and have urged the interim government to repeal a decree that granted the military broad discretion in the use of force, something one of Anez’ ministers told local media the government was willing to do to further dialogue.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all parties to refrain from violence and for the Bolivian security services to respect the rights of peaceful protesters.
Additional reporting by Monica Machicao, Mitra Taj and Makini Brice; Editing by David Gregorio and Daniel Wallis