Bolivia Restores Stability After Failed Coup Attempt

June 27, 2024 by No Comments

Bolivia’s capital returned to a state of calm on Thursday following a tumultuous incident where troops, led by a top general, stormed the presidential palace before swiftly retreating. The events threatened to plunge the already troubled democracy into further chaos.

On Wednesday, the nation of 12 million watched in disbelief as Bolivian military forces appeared to turn against the government of President Luis Arce. They seized control of the capital’s main square with armored personnel carriers, crashed a tank into the palace, and unleashed tear gas on protesters who had taken to the streets.

The country’s army chief, Gen. Juan José Zúñiga, addressed a group of TV reporters from the palace, vowing to “restore democracy,” replace the cabinet, and release political prisoners.

However, as opposition leaders condemned the apparent coup attempt, it became clear that the coup lacked meaningful political support. Arce refused to yield and appointed a new army commander, who immediately ordered troops to stand down, bringing the rebellion to an end after just three chaotic hours. Hundreds of Arce’s supporters rushed the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags, singing the national anthem, and cheering.

“We are here, standing firm, in the presidential palace, ready to confront any coup attempt,” Arce said after facing down Gen. Zúñiga, calling on Bolivians to mobilize in defense of democracy.

Authorities promptly arrested Zúñiga as his soldiers retreated from central La Paz, effectively crushing the coup attempt and defusing the latest crisis in a country plagued by a bitter political rivalry and economic crisis.

“Their goal was to overturn the democratically elected authority,” Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo told journalists while announcing the arrests of Zúñiga along with an alleged co-conspirator, former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador.

The short-lived rebellion followed months of escalating tensions between Arce and his former ally, ex-President Evo Morales. Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, remains a global leftist icon and a towering figure in national politics, even years after mass protests forced him to resign and flee in 2019— an ouster his supporters consider a coup.

Since returning from exile, Morales has staged a remarkable political comeback. Threatening to challenge Arce in the 2025 primaries, Morales has ignited an unprecedented rift within their ruling socialist party. This feud has paralyzed efforts to address a spiraling economic crisis, with the country’s foreign currency reserves dwindling, natural gas exports plummeting, and its currency peg collapsing.

As police in riot gear set up blockades outside the presidential palace, Bolivians, no strangers to instability in a country that has experienced 190 coups by one account, thronged ATMs, formed long lines at gas stations, and emptied shelves in grocery stores and pharmacies.

Flanked by the newly appointed military chiefs late Wednesday, Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo sought to reassure the rattled public and clarify what had transpired.

The turmoil began earlier this week, Novillo said, when Arce dismissed Zuñiga in a private meeting on Tuesday over the army chief’s threats to arrest Morales if he pursued his presidential bid in 2025. In their meeting, Novillo stated that Zuñiga gave officials no indication that he was preparing to seize power.

“He admitted that he had committed some excesses,” Novillo said of Zuñiga. “We said goodbye in the most friendly way, with hugs. Zuñiga said that he would always be at the side of the president.”

The frantic palace takeover began hours later. Accompanied by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga stormed into government headquarters and declared that he was weary of political infighting. “The armed forces intend to restore the democracy,” he said.

Members of the country’s fragmented opposition, whom Zuñiga claimed to support, rejected the coup even before it was clear that it had failed. Former interim President Jeanine Áñez, detained for her role in Morales’ 2019 ouster, stated that soldiers sought to “destroy the constitutional order” but appealed to both Arce and Morales not to run in the 2025 elections.

The mutiny by a lifelong member of the military with a low political profile stirred confusion. Just before his arrest, Zúñiga claimed that President Arce himself had requested the general to storm the palace as a ploy to boost the embattled leader’s popularity.

“The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity,'” Zúñiga quoted the Bolivian leader as saying.

Justice Minister Iván Lima denied Zúñiga’s claims, insisting that the general was lying to justify his actions. Prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga on charges of “attacking the constitution,” he said.

Analysts asserted that, more than anything, Wednesday’s events highlighted the weakness of Bolivia’s democratic institutions.

“This grants control to the military and erodes democracy and is an important signpost that the problems of the 2019 coup have not been addressed,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “Bolivia’s democracy remains very fragile, and definitely a great deal more fragile today than it was yesterday.”