Bolivian Leader Evo Morales Steps Down

President Evo Morales of Bolivia, who came to power more than a decade ago as part of a leftist wave sweeping Latin America, resigned on Sunday after unrelenting protests by an infuriated population that accused him of undermining democracy to extend his rule.

Mr. Morales and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, who also resigned, said in a national address that they were stepping down in an effort to stop the bloodshed that has spread across the country in recent weeks. But they admitted no wrongdoing and instead insisted that they were victims of a coup.

As the country slipped into deeper turmoil over the weekend, protesters voiced their fear of Bolivia’s trajectory under Mr. Morales.

“This is not Cuba. This is not Venezuela!” they chanted in La Paz, Bolivia’s main city, over the weekend. “This is Bolivia, and Bolivia will be respected.”

“It once more reinforces the military’s position as final arbiter in political crises,” he said, predicting that it would “further fuel polarization.”

Police officers in La Paz were among the first to join the revolt. Initially, many took to the streets with bandannas or surgical masks covering their faces, apparently fearful of being identified. But as their ranks grew, many shed the masks and used bullhorns to address protesters.

“Our duty will always be the defense of the people,” a female officer said through tears in a televised address. “The police are with the people!”

By Sunday, the rebellion had spread to the military.

Shortly before Mr. Morales went on national television to announce his resignation, the commander of Bolivia’s armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, said the military chiefs believed he should step down to restore “peace and stability and for the good of our Bolivia.”

When Bolivians went to the polls in October, many expressed hope that the president would suffer the first electoral loss since his landslide victory in 2005. Graffiti denouncing Mr. Morales as a “dictator” was ubiquitous in the capital.

The opposition felt victorious when initial results showed that Mr. Morales had failed to carve out the 10-percentage-point margin needed for an outright win and would have to face a runoff. That scenario was potentially ruinous for Mr. Morales because other opposition candidates had endorsed the runner-up, Mr. Mesa.

The president’s hold on power grew more tenuous as the day wore on. Leading figures in his party resigned, and the military launched operations that appeared intended to protect protesters from armed bands of Morales supporters.

Mr. Morales, a member of the Aymara Indigenous people, rose to prominence as a union leader for coca leaf growers. On his watch, the country’s power structure was transformed. Women today hold nearly half the seats in Congress, and Indigenous people hold more sway than ever.

His first term also coincided with a commodities boom that allowed him and other leftist leaders in Latin America to lift millions out of poverty through subsidies and political patronage. One of the poorest nations in the world, Bolivia used proceeds from natural gas exports to turbocharge its economy.

His party, the Movement for Socialism, has long been the country’s dominant political force, controlling both houses of Congress. Opponents struggled to compete with Mr. Morales because of his enormous support, but they also faced enormous personal risk. Mr. Morales has unleashed allies in the judiciary against political rivals, many of whom have landed in jail or gone into exile.

Raúl L. Madrid, a professor of government and Latin American politics at the University of Texas at Austin who studies Bolivia closely, said Mr. Morales came to feel indispensable.

“I think he views himself as the savior of Bolivia, as a representative of the marginalized people of Bolivia, especially Indigenous people,” he said.

Mr. Madrid said that if Mr. Morales had stepped down after his second or third term, he would have walked away with a commendable legacy. Yet, he added, the president’s decision to try to remain in power was unsurprising.

“From the beginning, he was not interested in grooming a successor that could have threatened him from within,” Mr. Madrid said. “These populist leaders who try to hold on to power at all cost end up undermining their legacy, and people remember them as dictators or would-be dictators.”

Leftist leaders in Latin America, including President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Argentina’s incoming president, Alberto Fernández, and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil condemned Mr. Morales’s ouster as a coup.

“It’s unfortunate that Latin America has a financial elite that does not know how to abide by democracy and the social inclusion of the poorest people,” Mr. da Silva said.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, said he was pleased to see Mr. Morales go.

“The word coup is used a lot when the left loses,” he told the newspaper O Globo. “When they win, it’s legitimate. When they lose it’s a coup.”

Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro. Cesar Del Castillo and Mónica Machicao contributed reporting from La Paz, Bolivia, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela.

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