Bolivian President Denies Coup Attempt Accusations, Says General Acted Alone

June 29, 2024 by No Comments

Bolivian President Luis Arce on Thursday strongly refuted allegations that he orchestrated an attempted coup against his government, calling them “lies.” He asserted that General Juan José Zúñiga, who allegedly led the attempted coup, acted independently and would face legal consequences.

Arce’s statement, his first public remarks since the failed coup attempt on Wednesday, came after General Zúñiga alleged, without providing evidence, that the president had ordered him to carry out the mutiny as a ploy to boost his declining popularity.

The general’s claims sparked speculation about the true nature of the events, even after authorities announced the arrest of 17 individuals, primarily military officers. Opposition senators and government critics joined in expressing skepticism, labeling the mutiny a “self-coup.”

Some Bolivians expressed belief in Zúñiga’s allegations. “They are playing with the intelligence of the people, because nobody believes that it was a real coup,” said Evaristo Mamani, a 48-year-old lawyer.

Arce and his administration have vehemently denied these claims. “I am not a politician who is going to win popularity through the blood of the people,” he stated on Thursday.

Meanwhile, supporters of Arce gathered outside the presidential palace on Thursday, offering some political support to the beleaguered leader as authorities made more arrests in the wake of the failed coup that rattled the economically struggling nation.

Among the 17 individuals arrested were Army Chief General Zúñiga and former Navy Vice Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador, who were taken into custody the previous day. All face charges of armed uprising and attacks against government infrastructure, carrying potential penalties of 15 years imprisonment or more, according to the country’s attorney general, César Siles.

The president claimed that the plot involved not only military officers but also individuals retired from the military and members of civil society. He declined to provide further details.

The South American nation of 12 million watched in shock and confusion on Wednesday as military forces appeared to turn against Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored vehicles, repeatedly ramming a small tank into the presidential palace, and deploying tear gas on protesters.

Senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo revealed that among those arrested was a civilian, identified as Aníbal Aguilar Gómez, who was allegedly a key “ideologue” of the thwarted coup. He said the alleged conspirators began plotting in May.

Riot police guarded the palace doors, and Arce—who has struggled to manage the country’s shortages of foreign currency and fuel—emerged on the presidential balcony as his supporters flooded the streets, singing the national anthem, cheering, and setting off fireworks. “No one can take democracy away from us,” he declared.

Bolivians responded by chanting, “Lucho, you are not alone!”

Analysts suggest that the outpouring of public support for Arce, even if temporary, provides him with a reprieve from the country’s economic woes and political unrest. The president is locked in an escalating rivalry with popular former President Evo Morales, his former ally who has threatened to challenge Arce in 2025.

“The president’s management has been very bad, there are no dollars, there is no petrol,” said La Paz-based political analyst Paul Coca. “Yesterday’s military move is going to help his image a bit, but it’s no solution.”

Shortly after Wednesday’s military maneuver began, it became evident that any attempted takeover lacked meaningful political backing. The rebellion ended peacefully at the close of the business day. In an extraordinary scene, Arce engaged in a heated argument with Zúñiga and his allies face-to-face in the plaza outside the palace before returning inside to appoint a new army commander.

“What we saw is extremely unusual for coup d’etats in Bolivia, and it raises red flags,” said Diego von Vacano, an expert in Bolivian politics at Texas A&M University and former informal advisor to President Arce. “Arce looked like a victim yesterday and a hero today, defending democracy.”

Speaking in Paraguay on Thursday, U.S. deputy secretary of state for management, Rich Verma, condemned Zúñiga, stating that “democracy remains fragile in our hemisphere.”

The brief mutiny followed months of increasing tensions between Arce and Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. Morales has staged a remarkable political comeback since mass protests and a deadly crackdown led to his resignation and flight in 2019—a military-backed ouster that his supporters denounce as a coup.

Morales has vowed to run against Arce in 2025, a prospect that has unsettled Arce, whose popularity has plummeted as the country’s foreign currency reserves dwindle, its natural gas exports decline, and its currency peg to the US dollar weakens.

Morales’ allies in Congress have made governing almost impossible for Arce. The cash shortage has intensified pressure on Arce to eliminate food and fuel subsidies that have depleted state finances.

Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo told reporters that Zuñiga’s coup attempt stemmed from a private meeting on Tuesday in which Arce dismissed the army chief over his threats on national television to arrest Morales if he proceeded to join the 2025 race.

However, Zuñiga did not give officials any indication that he was preparing to seize power, Novillo said.

“He admitted that he had committed some excesses,” he 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.”

Pro-democracy advocates have already expressed doubt about the trustworthiness of any government-led investigation.

“Judicial independence is basically zero, the credibility of the judiciary is on the floor,” said Juan Pappier, deputy director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “Not only do we not know today what happened, we probably will never know.”