By Daniel Ramos and Monica Machicao
LA PAZ (Reuters) – A Bolivian protest leader who has become a symbol of opposition to President Evo Morales arrived on Wednesday in the nation’s capital, La Paz, where he plans to formally demand the leftist leader step down after a contentious election last month.
Luis Fernando Camacho, a civic leader from the eastern city of Santa Cruz, was whisked away in a convoy from the city’s main airport in nearby El Alto in the midst of a huge security presence and with rival protest groups massing outside.
The gambit, after he was blocked from leaving the airport on Tuesday, has sparked a fierce backlash from government supporters, while seemingly helping rally a split opposition.
Camacho plans to march to the presidential palace to deliver a pre-written letter of resignation for Morales to sign.
The new attempt is likely to fan tensions following weeks of protests and strikes since the Oct. 20 vote. Hostilities have ramped up since Tuesday night in La Paz and Cochabamba, with clashes between Morales supporters and the opposition.
Government supporters and anti-Morales protesters clashed outside the El Alto airport late into Wednesday night.
Carlos Mesa, the runner-up in the October election, had been at the airport waiting for Camacho to arrive, along with ex-President Jorge Quiroga.
“I think this is a fundamental moment for the opposition that believes in a democratic response and a peaceful way out,” said Mesa, who has repeatedly raised allegations of fraud against Morales and called for new elections.
Morales, a socialist leader who has been in power since 2006, has defended his election win and said that the opposition is trying to lead a “coup” against him and that his rivals were inciting violence.
BOLIVIANS VS BOLIVIANS
With little sign of a political solution, the standoff has worsened. On Wednesday, newspaper headlines decried the violence and pointed to an economic cost of $167 million. “Bolivians against Bolivians” read the front page of one local daily.
Local media reported the death of one young man in his twenties in the city of Cochabamba on Wednesday. In a tweet, Camacho blamed the death on Morales, and in a separate video message called for unity and calm.
Morales confirmed the death, saying the youngster was an “innocent victim of violence provoked by political groups encouraging racial hatred amongst our Bolivian brothers”.
“I hope Camacho and the people who follow him understand that the route they are taking simply leads to disaster,” state media reported defence minister Javier Zavaleta as saying.
Morales won last month’s vote with a lead of just over 10 points over Mesa, handing the former coca grower an outright win and avoiding a second-round runoff. The victory, however, was marred by a near 24-hour halt in the count, which, when resumed, showed a sharp and unexplained shift in Morales’ favour.
International governments have called for calm and are backing an audit of the election by the Organisation of American States (OAS), which has recommended that a second round vote go ahead. Morales has agreed the audit will be “binding.”
The OAS on Wednesday called for calm while it completed its audit.
Since the vote, cities have gone into lockdown, with daily marches and road blocks. Camacho earlier this week called for people to blockade public institutions and the country’s borders in order to hit government incomes.
Benjamín Blanco, a senior trade official, said on Wednesday that borders with Peru, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil had been affected, with hundreds of trucks being stopped.
(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Monica Machicao, David Mercado and Miguel Lo Bianco; Writing by Adam Jourdan and Dave Sherwood; Editing by Diane Craft, Rosalba O’Brien and Sonya Hepinstall)