Canada hesitates to recognize Bolivia's new president

The sudden assumption of Bolivia's presidency by a conservative politician previously unknown outside her country has presented Canada with a quandary.

Jeanine Añez says she has taken power because of "the need to create a climate of social peace in the country" following the flight of President Evo Morales into exile in Mexico after an election plagued by allegations of fraud.

As of Wednesday evening, neither Global Affairs Canada (GAC) nor the Bolivian Embassy appear to have decided whether to publicly recognize Jeanine Añez, who already is performing the functions of president in La Paz with the support of the country's armed forces and police.

The controversial figure claimed constitutional legitimacy for her inauguration based on her title as vice-president of the Senate, although her nomination occurred in a Congress that lacked a quorum due to a boycott of proceedings by pro-Morales legislators.

Juan Karita/The Associated Press

Her proclamation was immediately rejected by left-leaning governments in the region, including those of Cuba and Venezuela, but recognized by the governments of the two most populous countries in the hemisphere: the Trump administration in the United States and the Bolsonaro government in Brazil.

While some Bolivian embassies, such as the one in Berlin, continued to display photographs of Evo Morales as president on their website banners, the Bolivian embassy in Ottawa did not. When CBC News visited the embassy Wednesday morning, an official said the mission was still functioning but "we have no comments" on the constitutional situation in Bolivia.

'New elections in January'

Meanwhile, Canada raised the status of its travel advisory for the Andean nation Wednesday morning to warn Canadians there to "avoid non-essential travel ... due to political uncertainty, nationwide protests, roadblocks and civil unrest."

Añez described herself as an interim president whose goal was to hold new elections as soon as possible; she suggested a date of Jan. 22.

Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

Añez's supporters base her claim to legitimacy on Bolivia's constitution, under which the president of the Senate is third in line to the presidency. After Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera fled to Mexico, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra (also of the ruling party) sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy in La Paz and resigned her seat.

Añez said this leaves her as the next in the line of succession. But that claim was complicated Wednesday afternoon when Salvatierra, who outranks Añez in the constitutional order of succession, left her sanctuary in the Mexican embassy and reappeared, with supporters in tow, at the doors of the Senate, demanding to be sworn in as president.

Moreover, not all countries that accused Morales of electoral fraud are convinced of the legitimacy of Añez's assumption.

Canada has no position yet

Canada, which has pursued a more active policy in Latin America under the Trudeau government, sent two forensic specialists to Bolivia in the last week of October to help with an audit of the first round of voting held under the auspices of the Organization of American States.

After the audit team reported back that it had found serious manipulation of the vote count, Canada called for a second round of voting and insisted that it be cleaner.

Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

But the Trudeau government stopped short of calling for the departure of President Morales. Like other governments in the hemisphere, Ottawa could only watch as events in Bolivia rapidly spiralled out of control — street battles between Morales supporters and opponents, followed by a pro-opposition uprising by police in Cochabamba, and finally a video statement by the commander of the armed forces in which he "suggested" that Morales step down for the good of the country.

By that point, opposition supporters had ransacked or burned the homes of a number of prominent MAS Party politicians, including Morales' own.

A left-right split over Bolivia

The fast-moving events opened a rift among the countries calling for new elections — between the more centrist Canadian and Argentine governments on the one hand, and right-wing governments in the U.S. and Brazil on the other.

In a statement to CBC News, GAC spokesman Adam Austen said that "Canada is monitoring the situation in Bolivia very closely. It is critical that all political and social actors exercise restraint in this turbulent time.

"Now that President Morales has resigned, it is critical that free and fair elections be held as quickly as possible. Canada stands ready to support those efforts."

Asked whether Canada would recognize Añez, Austen said that "our focus is on swift elections."

Argentina's lame duck President Mauricio Macri, one of the Trudeau government's closest collaborators in Latin America, had joined with the U.S., Canada, Brazil and some other Latin American countries in refusing to recognize the Bolivian election.

But Macri has hesitated to endorse Añez's self-proclamation as president of Bolivia. "For now there is no recognition," his office told Argentine media Wednesday.

The U.S. recognized Añez Tuesday night within hours of her swearing-in on the balcony of Bolivia's presidential palace.

Brazil's foreign minister Ernesto Aruajo also backed Añez. "Our understanding is that the Bolivian constitution is being followed," he said.

Colombia also tweeted its recognition of Añez's presidency Wednesday.

Everywhere in the hemisphere, the Bolivian crisis fed into and sharpened the polarized debate between left-wing nations that mostly oppose regime change in Venezuela, and centrist or right-wing governments that say Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro is an illegitimate dictator.

Argentina's president-elect Alberto Fernandez, who defeated Macri in an election two weeks ago, accused the Trump administration of "applauding" the fall of Morales and attacked its recognition of Añez.

"The U.S. has gone back decades," he said Tuesday, "back to the worst era of the 1970s, backing military interventions against democratically elected governments."

The Bolivian crisis revealed the extent to which the continental consensus around Venezuela, which Canada helped to build, has fallen apart over the past year.

A year ago, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico all agreed that constitutional order had broken down in Venezuela and needed to be restored.

When Juan Guaido, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself interim president using constitutional arguments similar to those used by Añez, the U.S. was the first country to recognize him — and Canada did the same about an hour later.

It was Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil that was first to recognize Añez, with the U.S. almost immediately following suit. Mexico — once an important member of the Lima Group of nations working to restore democracy to Venezuela — gave Morales sanctuary and condemned his departure from power. Canada has declined to take sides.

Racist tweets

One factor in that hesitation may be Añez's radioactive past comments about Bolivia's Indigenous peoples. An official at Global Affairs Canada confirmed to CBC News that the Canadian government is aware of racist tweets that Jeanine Añez has sent in the past.

In one tweet sent last week, Añez posted a photo of four indigenous men in which she had drawn a circle around one man's shoes and posted the caption "Indigenous??? Look." The tweet appeared to imply that a real indigenous person would not be wearing shoes, or at least not new ones.

Also circulating widely was a six-year-old post attributed to Añez's Twitter account and apparently since deleted, in which the publicly religious politician allegedly wrote "I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites. The city is not for Indians, they should go to the Altiplano (high Andes plains) or Chaco (lowland scrub forest region of Bolivia)." CBC News was not able to independently verify the authorship of that tweet, though it did find another Añez tweet from the same period that described indigenous rites as "satanic."

Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

Bolivia is usually considered the South American nation with the largest proportion of Indigenous inhabitants, although the percentage of Bolivians who identify as Indigenous has dropped from 62 per cent in the 2001 census to only 41 per cent in the most recent national accounting.

There were strong class and racial undertones to the conflict between Morales supporters and opponents, although Morales's once solid support among Bolivia's Indigenous peoples, including his own Aymara, has weakened significantly in recent years, and many Indigenous Bolivians now support opposition parties.

For a Trudeau government that says it seeks reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and has promised to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its second term, the departure of the hemisphere's only Indigenous president — after Canada questioned his legitimacy — is already a source of discomfort.

The replacement of Morales by a right-wing leader who tweets that "Indians" should stay out of the capital could be even more problematic.