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The Three-Hour Coup. What Just Happened in Bolivia?

Published: July 3, 2024 | Print Friendly and PDF
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Source: Ted Snider

One of the strangest and most incomprehensible coup attempts has just unfolded in Bolivia. Not only are the motives unclear, it is even unclear who ordered it: the general who led the coup against the president or the president. But the stage upon which it unfolded was partly set by a U.S.-supported coup that took place four years ago.

On June 26, Bolivian General Juan José Zúñiga used the nation’s own armed forces to surround the presidential palace and other government buildings. He positioned tanks and armoured vehicles in Plaza Murillo, the main square in the capital of La Paz and the location of Bolivia’s government. One tank smashed through the door of the presidential palace so soldiers could flood in.

In a bizarre scene, Bolivia’s president, Luis Arce, with cabinet ministers at his side, heroically confronted General Zúñiga, saying, “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination.” Moments later, a defeated Zúñiga turned away and left, taken into custody and escorted away in a bulletproof army vehicle. The commander of the navy, Vice-Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador, was also arrested.

Acre quickly appointed new leaders of the army, navy and air force. The new army commander ordered the troops to return to their barracks, and the three hour coup attempt was over.

Two very different accounts of the coup have since emerged. The first is that it was a genuine coup attempt undertaken by the army commander, who had reportedly been dismissed from his post by Arce the day before, and a civilian mastermind named Anibal Aguilar Gomez.

According to this account, taking up the fight for a nation with an economic crisis that has led to protests in the streets and a struggle for power in the ruling party between President Arce and former president Evo Morals that has slowed down the workings of government, General Zúñiga rose up “to restore Bolivia’s democracy.” Zúñiga demanded new cabinet ministers and the release of political prisoners.

Acre’s former ally and current political opponent Evo Morales immediately condemned the coup attempt and called for criminal charges to be brought against Zúñiga. Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Honduras, all condemned the coup and expressed support for Arce. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States also condemned the coup.

But in a surprising twist, upon his arrest, General Zúñiga turned the tables and accused President Arce of attempting a self-coup. The general claimed that “The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity.’” When Zúñiga asked if he should “take out the armored vehicles,” Arce told him to “take them out.”

According to this account, Arce orchestrated the self-coup to cast himself as the champion of Bolivian democracy in order to boost his waning popularity.

Arce has denied the charge, and Bolivian officials have dismissed it as a quickly thought up lie to justify Zúñiga’s actions.

But not everyone has dismissed the accusation. Members of the opposition have echoed it. Opposition senator Andrea Barrientos was among the first. Carlos Romero, a former official in the Morales government, called the attempted coup “a set-up” and said Zúñiga dutifully “followed the script as he was ordered.” Alejandro Reyes, a legislator in the opposition Civic Community bloc, said there were “indications, evidence and statements that allow us to think that this [coup] has been premeditated, and could even involve the participation of the executive”.

Bolivian political analyst Carlos Toranzo told the BBC, “There is very little clarity now as to whether it was an attempted coup d’état or, conspicuously, a show put on by the government itself.” He took the possibility of Zúñiga’s accusation seriously, noting that “it’s strange” that as events unfolded leading to the coup attempt, there was “total tranquillity from the president and his cabinet.”

In the most shocking turn, Evo Morales has reversed his position and accused Arce of a self-coup. On June 30, Morales said that Arce “disrespected the truth, deceived us, lied, not only to the Bolivian people but to the whole world.” Gerardo García, the vice-president of the party both Arce and Morales belong to, said that Arce was the “intellectual author” of the coup and that he made a “mockery of the country.”

Bolivia has a troubled history of coups, and the stage for the current coup was set by the last coup. In 2019, after convincingly winning the election in the first round, Morales was removed in a U.S. supported coup. Opposition and Organization of American States’ claims of fraud were readily refuted.

Bolivia is lithium-rich, and lithium is to electric cars what oil is to conventional cars. Morales was happy to have foreign companies in Bolivia but stipulated that any lithium mining had to be carried out in equal partnership with Bolivia’s national mining company and Bolivia’s national lithium company. In line with this policy, Morales canceled a lithium deal with Germany’s ACI Systems. Days later, he was gone.

The current coup is as confusing as it was brief. It seems poised to lead to further political conflict in Bolivia. The unfolding of time may make clear whether this bizarre coup attempt was a genuine coup or a strangely staged theatrical self-coup.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.

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