Bolivia’s attempted coup, dueling versions of what happened, raise worries over what comes next

A sense of calm filled the streets of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, on Thursday as Bolivians thumbed through the pages of a newspaper headline that read, “FAILED COUP.”

But amid the calm on the streets are nagging skepticism about what was behind the chaos the day before and, more importantly, questions over the democracy that remains in place.

While President Luis Arce blamed the attempted coup on a general, Juan Jose Zúñiga — who was arrested along with at least 18 others — the general claimed it was staged by the president to boost his popularity.

The wide-ranging speculation surrounding the reason and potential people behind the attempted coup are a perfect illustration of a splintered country.

Dramatic events, global condemnation

For over four hours on Wednesday evening, dramatic visuals were pouring out of Bolivia’s capital city La Paz. Smoke bombs and tear gas filled crowded streets that became a flurry of shields and flame, as armored vehicles were seen ramming the door of the Bolivian presidential palace.

Demonstrators confront the military in La Paz, Bolivia on June 26, 2024.
Demonstrators confront the military in La Paz, Bolivia, on Wednesday. Mateo Romay Salinas / Anadolu via Getty Images

In a tense hallway moment, Zúñiga then was confronted by the president, who emerged from inside to tell him face to face, “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers.”

The troops who followed Zúñiga soon retreated, and the general was arrested and taken in handcuffs in a police car.

The leftist 60-year-old president, often called Lucho, was seen smiling and triumphant with a raised fist to a rising crowd outside the palace before him. Chants could be heard in Spanish, “Lucho … the people stand by you.”

Bolivian president, Luis Arce waves to demonstrators in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.
Bolivian President Luis Arce waves to demonstrators in La Paz on Saturday.Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The global reaction was a swift and rare united front across the political spectrum. Words of condemnation ranged from socialist allies like Cuba and Venezuela, to conservative Paraguay, and from as far away as the European Union and Russia.

Richard Verma, the U.S. deputy secretary of state for management and resources, said during an unrelated summit on Thursday, “We condemn the attempted coup yesterday, as we condemn any attempt to subvert constitutional order.”

In a live interview on Wednesday night, Bolivian Vice Minister Jorge Silva told Noticias Telemundo anchor Julio Vaqueiro that the siege took them by surprise and declared that order and democracy was quickly “re-established.”

But as support for Zúñiga crumbled around him that evening, he started to say it was all staged and encouraged by President Arce himself, who “needed to prepare something to push up his popularity.”

“I asked him, ‘Shall we take the armored vehicles out?’ And he said, ‘Take them out.’ Then on Sunday night the armored vehicles started to go,” Zúñiga told reporters.

Both Arce and former President Evo Morales have decried Zúñiga, and the government denies Zúñiga’s claims. The country’s justice minister, Iván Lima, called these “lies” from a man who knows he’s on the brink of facing up to 20 years of prison time, who is now under an active investigation and will soon be tried.

The government announced Thursday they’ve arrested 17 people in connection with the coup attempt, in addition to Zúñiga and former Vice Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador.

Demonstrators in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.
Demonstrators in La Paz, Bolivia, on Saturday. Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Waving an Indigenous whipala flag, Alicia Chura backed Arce on the streets of La Paz. “We are totally united. Yesterday has strengthened us. The entire Bolivian people are more united than ever.”

But others, like Carlos Romero, once an official in the Morales government, remain skeptical. “This has been a setup. … Zúñiga followed the script as he was ordered.”

Peace resident Juan Carlos Llanque told Reuters“This was all a political comedy,” while resident Evaristo Mamani said to The Associated Press that “they are playing with the intelligence of the people, because nobody believes that it was a real coup.”

A troubling history

For Bolivians, it’s another coup attempt to add to the list of roughly 200 since the country’s foundation. According to data compiled by scholars, there have been more coups in Bolivia – both attempted and successful – since the 1950s than in any other country.

“Bolivia is high on the coup-risk indicator,” said political science professor Clayton Thyne, who helped compile the dataset that keeps track of coups around the globe. “The makings have been there for a while. It’s a poor country that sees protests, and a lot of them.”

Bolivia’s financial turmoil has reached a fever pitch in recent months, with protests spilling over as recent as earlier this very week. The small country has a population of 12.5 million people who are accustomed to seeing roads shut down from demonstrations.

In 2019, political turmoil led to the ousting of then-President Morales, a leftist and former ally of Arce, who had been in power since 2006 when he became the country’s first Indigenous president.

Members of the military deployed near Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.
Members of the military deployed near Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, on Saturday. Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Bloomberg via Getty Images

After he ran for an unconstitutional fourth term in a contested election, weeks of deadly protests followed and Morales resigned — later claiming it was under pressure from what he called a U.S.-backed coup. His socialist government was replaced by an interim conservative government, then succeeded by Arce’s leftist government.

Morales and Arce are set to face off in next year’s election, with tensions building as the two former political allies-now-foes have become the faces of a splintering socialist movement within Bolivia.

As recently as this week, Gen. Zúñiga had been public with his condemnation of Morales’ intention to run for president again and was reportedly stripped of his military command by Arce for voicing his intentions to stop him.

As Zúñiga took to the streets Wednesday, Associated Press reporters heard him say he was trying to “restore order,” decrying the politicians and elite that have left the people of Bolivia “in crisis.”

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