Bolivia foils military coup attempt: All you need to know

President Luis Arce asserts authority as Bolivian Army General Juan Jose Zuniga, who was behind the coup d’etat bid, is arrested.

Bolivian President Luis Arce thwarted an apparent attempted coup on Wednesday, as Army General Juan Jose Zuniga was arrested, hours after he led troops and tanks to storm the presidential palace in the capital, La Paz.

President Arce from the left-wing Movement for Socialism (MAS) party has hailed the failed coup bid, calling it a victory for Bolivia’s democracy.

“Many thanks to the Bolivian people. Long live democracy,” he said, after asserting control over the military in the Latin American nation.

Here is all you need to know about the coup attempt in Bolivia:

Who is Luis Arce?

  • Arce, 60, was elected president of the South American country in November 2020.
  • Arce’s victory came after nearly a year of political turmoil after longtime left-wing President Evo Morales was forced to resign in 2019 after disputed election results. The then-opposition senator Jeanine Anez anointed herself the interim president. Anez dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. She was jailed for 10 years in 2022 for orchestrating the coup that brought her to power.
  • Originally an economist, Arce crafted the economic plan for Morales’s first presidential bid in 2005. In 2006, Morales appointed Arce as economy minister.
  • In recent years, tensions have been brewing between Arce and Morales, who each lead a faction of the dominant MAS political party. Morales, who had been Arce’s mentor, has even said he will challenge the current president for the presidential seat in 2025, despite a Constitutional Court barring Morales from contesting.
  • Arce’s 2020 election as president marked a return of stability to Bolivia.
  • However, he has struggled to manage a US dollar shortage and the turmoil of slow economic growth and surging inflation has continued to unfold.

Why was there an attempted coup in Bolivia?

  • Army commander Zuniga said Arce’s government was “impoverishing” the country.
  • Arce has struggled to address the economic woes facing the country of 12 million people. As well as the US dollar shortage, foreign reserves have dwindled and Bolivia’s fiscal deficit has increased under his watch. The economic situation has been exacerbated by the ballooning of its oil subsidies due to the Ukraine war and tightening of the global financial system.
  • Low commodity prices in a country dependent on mineral exports have also affected its finances. A commodity price surge in 2014 helped boost revenue in the country with huge mineral reserves, including lithium used in the manufacture of batteries. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, its economy was hit hard.
  • The Andean nation has for decades suffered from political instability, high income inequality and extreme poverty, particularly among the Indigenous community. During Morales’s 14-year presidency, the country witnessed political stability and a record number of people were lifted out of poverty.
  • The current economic state of Bolivia is dire, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projecting growth at a meagre 1.6 percent.
  • Besides citing economic woes, Zuniga said the army was trying to “restore democracy and free our political prisoners,” adding that the coup would make democracy true, not one in which the country is governed by the same few people for decades. The country has been governed by the MAS party since 2005, when Morales became the first Indigenous president.
  • Arce’s term has also seen political unrest. Right-wing forces have led deadly strikes in provinces such as Santa Cruz against Arce’s government’s decisions.
Military police block entry to Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia
Military police block entry to Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia. [Juan Karita/AP]

How did the attempted coup unfold?

  • On Wednesday afternoon, troops with army vehicles entered the Plaza Murillo, an historic square in the capital, La Paz, where the presidency and Congress are situated.
  • One of eight tanks tried to break down the metal door to the plaza.
  • The coup attempt lasted about five hours.
  • Video footage showed an intense standoff between Arce and Zuniga, who was surrounded by a group of soldiers.

How was the coup averted?

  • “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” Arce told the coup leader in the front of the presidential palace.
  • The troops pulled back from the plaza and Zuniga was forced into a police car.
  • “Many thanks to the Bolivian people,” Arce said, hailing the troops’ withdrawal. “Long live democracy.”
Bolivian President Luis Arce raises a clenched fist surrounded by supporters and media, outside the government palace in La Paz, Bolivia,
Arce raises a clenched fist surrounded by supporters and media, outside the government palace in La Paz. [Juan Karita/AP]

How did Bolivian leaders and people respond?

  • Massive international condemnation and the people’s solidarity in favour of Arce played a role in foiling the coup attempt. Some Bolivian citizens took to the streets in protest against the attempted coup.
  • The attempt also earned condemnation from Morales, who said, “We will not allow the armed forces to violate democracy and intimidate people.”
  • Two days before the coup attempt, Zuniga had said in a statement on television that he would arrest Morales if he insisted on running for office again in 2025.
  • Even conservative ex-president Anez, who remains in jail, rebuked the army’s actions. She posted on X: “I fully reject of the mobilization of the military in the Plaza Murillo attempting to destroy constitutional order,” adding “the MAS with Arce and Evo must be got out through the vote in 2025. We Bolivians will defend democracy.”
A supporter of Bolivian President Luis Arce enters Plaza Murillo after a failed coup
A supporter of Bolivian President Luis Arce enters Plaza Murillo after the failed coup. [Juan Karita/AP]

What happened to General Juan Jose Zuniga?

  • “General, you are under arrest,” Deputy Interior Minister Jhonny Aguilera told Zuniga on Wednesday.
  • Zuniga was appointed by Arce as general commander in 2022 and has held high military ranks in the past. However, the relationship between the two soured, and Zuniga criticised Arce in the week leading to the coup attempt.
  • Bolivia’s Justice Minister Ivan Lima posted on X on Thursday that criminal action has been initiated against Zuniga under articles 121, 127 and 128 of the penal code.
  • These codes pertain to armed uprisings against security and state sovereignty, incitement of troops and attacks against the president and state dignitaries.
  • Lima added that the maximum possible sentence for the crimes is 20 years in prison.
  • Senior military officer and head of Bolivian navy, Juan Arnez Salvador, was also arrested.
  • Inside the presidential palace, Arce appointed Jose Wilson Sanchez as military commander, the post previously held by Zuniga.
Bolivian police hold the detained Juan Jose Zuniga, former general commander of the Army, in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Bolivian police hold the detained Zuniga. [Juan Karita/AP]

How did the international community react?

  • The coup attempt drew international condemnation, with world leaders calling the Bolivian army’s actions illegal.
  • Leaders of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela condemned the attempt, advocating for the preservation of democracy.
  • “I am a lover of democracy and I want it to prevail throughout Latin America,” Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, said in an X post. “We condemn any form of coup d’etat in Bolivia.”
  • “We express the strongest condemnation of the attempted coup d’état in Bolivia. Our total support and support for President Luis Alberto Arce Catacora,” Mexico’s outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador posted on X.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) said the international community would “not tolerate any form of breach of the legitimate constitutional order in Bolivia”.
  • A United States National Security Council spokesperson said Joe Biden’s administration was keeping a close eye on events in Bolivia and “calls for calm”.
  • United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “deeply concerned” by events in Bolivia and called on all actors, including the military, to “protect the constitutional order and to preserve a climate of peace”, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

Bolivia’s history of coups

  • Even amid South America’s long and sordid history with coups, Bolivia stands out. It has witnessed dozens of coup attempts since the 1950s, the most of any country.
  • Most recently, the 2019 forced resignation of Morales was deemed a coup by the MAS.
Source: Al Jazeera