Bolivia reels from short-lived coup attempt as apparent calm returns

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Calm returned to Bolivia’s capital on Thursday after troops led by a top general stormed the presidential palace, then quickly retreated, tumultuous scenes that threatened to pitch the long-troubled South American democracy into chaos.

The nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as Bolivian military forces appeared to turn on the government of President Luis Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored personnel carriers, crashing a tank into the palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters who flooded the streets.

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

But as opposition leaders condemned the apparent coup attempt, it became clear that the coup had no meaningful political support. Arce refused to relent and named a new army commander, who immediately ordered troops to stand down, ending the rebellion after just three chaotic and head-snapping hours. Hundreds of Arce’s supporters rushed the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags, singing the national anthem and cheering.“Here we are, firm, in the presidential palace, to confront any coup attempt,” Arce said after facing down Gen. Zúñiga, calling on Bolivians to mobilize in defense of democracy.

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

“Their goal was to overturn the democratically elected authority,” Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo told journalists in 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 mounting tensions between Arce and his one-time ally, former President Evo Morales. Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Morales remains a global leftist icon and towering figure in national politics years after mass protests that prompted him to resign and flee in 2019 — an ouster his supporters view as a coup.

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

As police in riot gear set up blockades outside the presidential palace, Bolivians — though no stranger to political conflict in a country that has witnessed some 190 coups by one count — thronged ATMs, formed long lines outside 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 shed light on what had happened.

The turmoil began earlier this week, Novillo said, when Arce dismissed Zuñiga in a private meeting Tuesday over the army chief’s threats to arrest Morales if he proceeded with his presidential bid in 2025. In their meeting, Novillo said that Zuñiga gave officials no indication 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. Tailed by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga burst into government headquarters and declared that he was sick of political infighting. “The armed forces intend to restore the democracy,” he said.

Members of the country’s fragmented opposition, which Zuñiga claimed to support, rejected the coup before it was clear it had failed. Former interim President Jeanine Áñez, detained for her role in Morales’ 2019 ouster, said 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 asked the general to storm the palace in 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 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 said that, more than anything, Wednesday’s events underscored 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.”

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