How tensions in Bolivia fueled an attempt to oust President Arce from power

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Armored vehicles rammed into the doors of Bolivia’s government palace on Wednesday as President Luis Arce said his country faced an apparent attempted coup.

In a sense, the uprising was the culmination of tensions that have been brewing in Bolivia for months, with protesters streaming into the nation’s capital amid a severe economic crisis and as two political titans battle for control of the ruling party.

At the same time, the attempt to take over the palace appeared to have lacked any meaningful support, and even Arce’s rivals quickly closed ranks to defend democracy and repudiate the uprising.

What appears to have triggered this?

Wednesday’s uprising appeared to be led by general commander of the army Juan José Zúñiga, who told journalists gathered at the plaza outside the palace that “Surely soon there will be a new Cabinet of ministers; our country, our state cannot go on like this.” But he added that he recognizes Arce as commander in chief “for now.”

Zúñiga did not explicitly say whether he was the uprising’s leader, but in the palace, with bangs echoing behind him, he said the army was trying to “restore democracy and free our political prisoners.”

Arce ordered him to withdraw his soldiers, saying he would not allow the insubordination. Later, he officially removed Zúñiga from his post.

What is behind the recent tensions?

Bolivians have increasingly been suffering the pains of slow growth, surging inflation and scarcity of dollars — a stark change from the prior decade that some called an “economic miracle.”

The country’s economy grew by over 4% nearly every year in the 2010s until pitching into the abyss with the coronavirus pandemic. But trouble began earlier, in 2014, when commodity prices plunged and the government dipped into its currency reserves to sustain spending. Then it drew on its gold reserves and even sold dollar bonds locally.

Arce had been finance minister during nearly the entire decade of strong growth, under leftist icon President Evo Morales. Upon assuming the presidency himself in 2020, he encountered a bleak economic reckoning from the pandemic. Diminished gas production sealed the end of Bolivia’s budget-busting economic model.

Today, it’s tapped out. Struggling to import fuel, lines of cars snake away from fuel-strapped gas stations. This year the International Monetary Fund forecasts growth of just 1.6%. Aside from the pandemic plunge in 2020, that would be Bolivia’s slowest growth in 25 years.

With this economic despair as a backdrop, president Arce and former leader Morales have clashed in a political fight that has paralyzed the government’s efforts to deal with it. For example, Morales’ allies in Congress have consistently thwarted Arce’s attempts to take on debt to relieve some of the pressure.

How exceptional is the uprising?

By one count, Bolivia has had more than 190 coup attempts and revolutions since its 1825 independence in a repetitive cycle of conflict between political elites in urban areas and disenfranchised by mobilized rural sectors.

This isn’t even the first alleged coup attempt in recent years. In 2019, Morales, then Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, ran for an unconstitutional third term. He won a contested vote plagued by allegations of fraud, setting off mass protests that caused 36 deaths and prompted Morales to resign and flee the country.

An interim government from the right-wing opposition took control, led by Jeanine Áñez and Morales’ Movement for Socialism, known by its Spanish acronym MAS, called it a coup.

Arce, Morales’s chosen successor, won the election pledging to restore prosperity to Bolivia, once Latin America’s mainstay source of natural gas.

How much political power does Arce have?

Morales, who still draws considerable support from coca farmers and union workers, was apparently not content to let Arce run for reelection unchallenged. After returning from exile, the charismatic populist last year announced plans to run in the 2025 presidential race, setting off a pitched battle for control of a splintering MAS.

Each man has been seeking to galvanize support for himself — and to undermine his erstwhile ally. That political fight has paralyzed government efforts to deal with the deepening economic despair and analysts have been warning social unrest could be explosive.

“Arce lacks Evo’s charisma, political skills and legacy. But he controls the state apparatus,” Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said in a text message. “Normally, the upcoming election would serve as a pressure valve. But with Evo’s candidacy up in the air, the opposition divided and the economy in disarray, Bolivia is clearly on edge.”

Despite their differences, both leaders were quick to denounce Wednesday what they called an attempted coup. So, too, did Bolivia’s former interim President Áñez, who said on X that Arce and Morales should instead be voted out in 2025.

Leaders from Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador and the EU also expressed their support.

“We strongly condemn the unacceptable action of force by a sector of that country’s army,” said Chile’s President Gabriel Boric. “We cannot tolerate any breach of the legitimate constitutional order in Bolivia or anywhere else.”

“It’s a dynamic situation and there is a long history of military coups in Bolivia, but a lot of domestic and global power brokers are lining up behind Arce,” said Brian Winter, vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas.


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