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

La Paz, Bolivia — Supporters of Bolivia’s president rallied outside his palace on Thursday after a failed coup attempt a day earlier, giving some political breathing room to the embattled leader of this economically troubled country as they chanted pro-democracy slogans.

The South American nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as military forces appeared to turn on the government of President Luis Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored vehicles, crashing a tank into the presidential palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters. Three hours later, the army general who led the attempted coup was in custody.

On Thursday, riot police guarded the palace doors and Arce — who has struggled to manage the country’s shortages of foreign currency and fuel — condemned the now-ousted Bolivian army chief, Gen. Juan José Zúñiga.

Analysts say that the surge of public support for Arce, even if fleeting, provides him with a much-needed reprieve from the country’s economic quagmire and political turmoil. The president is locked in a deepening rivalry with the popular former President Evo Morales, his erstwhile ally who has threatened to challenge Arce in 2025 primaries.

“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.”

Some protesters gathered outside the police station where the former army general was being detained, shouting that he should go to jail. “It’s a shame what Zúñiga did,” said 47-year-old Dora Quispe, one of the demonstrators. “We are in a democracy, not a dictatorship.”

Before his arrest late Wednesday, Zúñiga alleged without providing evidence that Arce had ordered the general to carry out the coup attempt in a ruse to boost the president’s popularity. That fueled a frenzy of speculation about what really happened, and opposition senators and government critics echoed the accusations, calling the mutiny a “self-coup” — a claim strongly denied by Arce’s government.

In La Paz’s main Plaza Murillo, supporters addressed Arce, yelling “Lucho, you are not alone!” as fireworks exploded overhead. Lucho, a common nickname for Luis, also means “fight” in Spanish.

Some Bolivians said they believed Gen. Zúñiga’s allegations on national TV that the coup attempt was a hoax.

“They are playing with the intelligence of the people, because nobody believes that it was a real coup,” said 48-year-old lawyer Evaristo Mamani.

Lawmakers and former officials also bolstered the allegations. “This has been a setup,” said Carlos Romero, a former official in the Morales government. “Zúñiga followed the script as he was ordered.”

Soon after the military action was underway, it became clear that any attempted takeover had no meaningful political support. The rebellion ended bloodlessly by the end of the business day. Arce named a new army commander, who immediately ordered troops to retreat.

“Here we are, firm, in the presidential palace, to confront any coup attempt,” Arce said after facing down Zúñiga. Hundreds of the president’s supporters surged into streets surrounding the palace Wednesday night, singing the national anthem and cheering for Arce.

Authorities swiftly arrested Zúñiga as his soldiers retreated from central La Paz.

The U.S. deputy secretary of state for management, Rich Verma, condemned Zuniga’s actions and speaking in Paraguay on Thursday noted that “democracy remains fragile in our hemisphere.”

The short-lived mutiny followed months of mounting tensions between Arce and ex-President Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. Morales has staged a dramatic political comeback since mass protests and a deadly crackdown prompted him to resign and flee in 2019 — a military-backed ouster that his supporters decry as a coup.

Morales has vowed to run against Arce in 2025 elections despite a constitutional court ruling that said he was ineligible because he had already served. The possibility of Morales running again has rattled Arce, whose popularity has plunged as the country’s foreign currency reserves dwindle, its natural gas exports plummet and its currency peg to the U.S. dollar collapses.

The cash crunch has ramped up pressure on Arce to scrap food and fuel subsidies that have put a strain on state finances, a combustible move ahead of elections.

Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo said Wednesday’s turmoil had its roots in a private meeting Tuesday in which Arce dismissed Zuñiga over the army chief’s threats to arrest Morales if he proceeded to join the 2025 race. Arce has also denied the legitimacy of Morales’ presidential bid.

In their meeting, Zuñiga gave officials no indication 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.”

Mere hours later, panic gripped the capital of La Paz. Tailed by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga burst into government headquarters and declared the armed forces sought “to restore Bolivia’s democracy.”

The influx of soldiers sent Bolivians into a frenzy, thronging ATMs, queuing outside gas stations and ransacking grocery stores. By one count, Bolivia has had more than 190 coup attempts and revolutions since its 1825 independence.

The country’s fragmented opposition 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.

Santa Cruz Gov. Luis Fernando Camacho, also detained for allegedly orchestrating a coup in 2019, demanded answers from Arce’s government on Thursday.

“Was it a media spectacle put on by the government itself, as General Zúñiga says? Was it just some military madness? Was it simply another example of lack of control?” he wrote on social media platform X.

Zúñiga’s answer came as a shock, telling reporters that Arce had asked him directly to storm the palace and bring armored vehicles into downtown La Paz.

“The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity,’” Zúñiga alleged the Bolivian leader told him.

Bolivian officials have denied Zúñiga’s claims, insisting the general was lying to justify his actions. Prosecutors said they’d seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga on charges of “attacking the constitution.”

Political experts struggling to comprehend the reasons behind Wednesday’s turmoil.

“This is the weirdest coup attempt I have ever seen,” 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.”


DeBre reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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