Bolivian president thanks people after facing down failed coup attempt

Regional organisations rally behind Bolivian government as troops and armoured vehicles gather in the capital.

Armoured vehicle and army troops outside the presidential palace
An armoured vehicle and military police form outside the government palace at Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 [Juan Karita/AP Photo]

Amid international outcry, an apparent coup attempt in Bolivia has subsided, with President Luis Arce asserting his authority over the country’s military.

Earlier, on Wednesday afternoon, troops led by army general commander Juan Jose Zuniga had stormed the presidential palace and taken up positions in the square outside. News reports indicated a tank slammed the palace doors.

But within hours, Zuniga urged the soldiers to withdraw, after leaders from around the world blasted the army’s actions as illegal.

President Arce hailed the withdrawal as a victory for Bolivia’s democracy and addressed the country’s citizens in the aftermath, some of whom had taken to the streets in protest of the alleged coup attempt.

“Many thanks to the Bolivian people,” said Arce. “Long live democracy.”

Dramatic footage on Bolivian television showed Arce facing down Zuniga and a group of soldiers in a palace hallway on Wednesday. “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” Arce said.

The news agency Reuters reported that Zuniga was ultimately arrested.

Why did the alleged coup occur?

Since taking office in 2020, President Arce has led an embattled government, fending off pressure from both the left and the right.

Under his leadership, right-wing forces in provinces like Santa Cruz have led deadly strikes against measures they believe are designed to keep them from power. Just last year, a prominent opposition leader, Luis Fernando Camacho, was arrested for his alleged role in 2019’s political arrest.

And on the left, President Arce faces pushback from his former political mentor, ex-President Evo Morales, who has declared his intention to replace Arce in the 2025 presidential race.

Adding to the political turmoil has been nationwide fuel shortages and a financial crisis that has seen its currency reserves crater.

“The president of the country is in a bit of a problem, in the sense that he’s got low approval ratings. The last one in March, he was at 38 percent. The economy’s not doing well at all. And he’s also involved in a protracted battle with Evo Morales, the ex-president of the country,” explained Al Jazeera correspondent John Holman. “So this is a difficult time for President Luis Arce.”

Zuniga was Arce’s hand-picked leader for Bolivia’s military. But as he entered the presidential palace on Wednesday, Zuniga cited the malaise in the country as a motivation.

“The three chiefs of the armed forces have come to express our dismay. There will be a new cabinet of ministers. Surely things will change, but our country cannot continue like this any longer,” Zuniga told a local TV station.

“Stop destroying, stop impoverishing our country, stop humiliating our army.”

The general added that he would continue to recognise Arce as the commander-in-chief “for now”. But he explained that his aim was to “restore democracy” and “free political prisoners”.

Local media reports indicated that Arce had stripped Zuniga of his role atop the country’s military earlier in the week, fuelling tensions between the two leaders.

People march through the streets of Bolivia.
People gather in support of the government as President Luis Arce in Cochabamba, Bolivia [Patricia Pinto/Reuters]

Domestic condemnation

But as armed soldiers and armoured vehicles filled the Plaza Murillo in the centre of the capital La Paz, the backlash came swiftly.

The country’s largest labour union announced an indefinite strike in defence of Arce’s government. Videos circulating on social media appear to show crowds of people chasing away pro-coup forces.

Former President Morales also denounced the military’s actions, calling for criminal prosecution against Zuniga and anyone who helped him.

“We will not allow the armed forces to violate democracy and intimidate people,” he said.

Even the right-wing leader who replaced Morales, former President Jeanine Anez, rejected the military’s advances.

“Total repudiation of the military mobilisation in the Plaza Murillo, attempting to destroy the constitutional order,” she wrote on the social media platform X, adding that Arce “must leave through the vote in 2025”.

From the presidential palace, Arce broadcast a video presenting a united front, standing alongside all his ministers. He pledged to “confront any attempt that threatens our democracy”.

“To the Bolivian people and the entire international community, our country today is facing an attempted coup d’etat,” Arce said in the video.

“The Bolivian people are called today. We need the Bolivian people to organise and mobilise against the coup d’etat in favour of democracy. We cannot allow once again coup attempts to take Bolivian lives.”

A history of coups

Wednesday’s scenes brought alarm to the Andean nation, where ex-President Morales has long maintained he was removed from office in a 2019 coup after he ran for a fourth term in office.

Bolivia has had a long history of political unrest since it gained independence in 1825. Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network said of all the South American nations, Bolivia is considered the one that has experienced the most coups.

“But it enjoyed a very long period of democracy until the 2019 coup,” she explained in an interview with Al Jazeera. “I think it’s very important to remember that Bolivia had an illegal government with the support of the military and a coup in 2019.”

That, she said, has fed scepticism among the public towards the armed forces, something reflected on the streets of La Paz on Wednesday. “The military has a bad reputation,” Ledebur said.

While she acknowledged some military officers were charged with crimes, the institution itself “didn’t receive significant legal consequences or any sort of punishment or restructuring after this very anti-democratic activity in 2019 and 2020”.

Wednesday’s actions, however, send a strong signal about the continued threat that the military may pose, Ledebur added. “It’s a very very clear sign that the army is not firmly entrenched in democracy, nor the rest of the armed forces.”

Photos from The Associated Press showed soldiers clearing away journalists near the presidential palace during the alleged coup.

Ultimately, President Arce replaced General Zuniga with Jose Wilson Sanchez, who ordered all mobilised troops to return to their barracks.

“No one wants the images we’re seeing in the streets,” Wilson Sanchez said. The public prosecutor’s office said it will open a criminal investigation into those behind the failed attempt against the government.

Kids eat ice cream in front of a hand-written sign denouncing the coup in Bolivia.
Students stand next to a banner that reads, ‘No to the Coup d’etat’ on June 26 [Patricia Pinto/Reuters]

International appeals for peace

As images of the alleged coup started to circulate across the globe, world leaders from countries like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia expressed alarm and denounced what they considered an attack on democracy.

“We express the strongest condemnation of the attempted coup d’etat in Bolivia,” said Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a popular left-wing leader.

Honduran President Xiomara Castro, meanwhile, called the mobilisation a “criminal coup d’etat”. Gabriel Boric, the president of the neighbouring country of Chile, issued his own statement: “We cannot tolerate any breach of the legitimate constitutional order in Bolivia or anywhere else.”

But the condemnation stretched well beyond Latin America. A White House spokesperson said the United States “urges calm and restraint”. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said his organisation “expresses its solidarity with the Bolivian government and people”.

The Organization of American States (OAS) – an international group comprised of 32 member states – also weighed in with an appeal to the military.

“We condemned the events in Bolivia. The army must submit itself to the legitimately elected civil power,” OAS leader Luis Almagro said while the turmoil unfolded.

Holman, the Al Jazeera correspondent, warned that the outpouring of support did not mean that President Arce’s troubles were over.

As General Zuniga was arrested, Holman explained that the military leader made unverified allegations that this apparent coup was organised by Arce himself to boost his dismal approval ratings.

“For now, stability of a sort returns,” Holman said. “It’s a really difficult, combustible situation right now in a country that has become deeply divided and polarised. The fact that whatever happened this afternoon has ended isn’t going to take away the explosive nature from the country.”

A woman walks past a group of heavily armed police
A woman walks by military police in La Paz, Bolivia, as they gathered outside the presidential palace on June 26 [Juan Karita/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies