July 16th, 2024

Bolivia’s president denies being behind attempted coup and says the general acted ‘on his own’

By Paola Flores And Isabel Debre, The Associated Press on June 27, 2024.

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – Bolivia President Luis Arce on Thursday denied being behind an attempted coup against him, and said that the general who apparently led it “acted on his own.”

In his first appearance before the press after the failed apparent coup, Arce said: “I am not a politician that is going to win popularity through the blood of the people”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – Supporters of Bolivia’s president rallied outside his palace on Thursday, giving some political breathing room to the embattled leader as authorities made more arrests in a failed coup that shook the economically troubled country a day earlier.

Bolivia’s government announced that a total of 17 people had been arrested for their alleged involvement in the attempted government takeover, including the army chief, Gen. Juan José Zúñiga, and former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador, who were taken into custody the day before.

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, repeatedly crashing a small tank into the presidential palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters.

Senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo did not elaborate on the other 15 people who were arrested, except to identify one civilian, Aníbal Aguilar Gómez, as a key “ideologue” of the thwarted coup. He said the alleged conspirators began plotting in May.

Riot police guarded the palace doors and Arce – who has struggled to manage the country’s shortages of foreign currency and fuel – emerged on the presidential balcony as his supporters surged into the streets singing the national anthem and cheering as fireworks exploded overhead. “No one can take democracy away from us,” he roared.

Bolivians responded by chanting, “Lucho, you are not alone!” Lucho, a common nickname for Luis, also means “fight” as a Spanish verb.

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

“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 speculation about what really happened. Opposition senators and government critics joined the chorus, calling the mutiny a “self-coup” – a claim strongly denied by Arce’s government.

“What we saw is extremely unusual for coup d’etats in Latin America, and it raises red flags,” said Diego von Vacano, an expert in Bolivian politics at Texas A&M University and former informal adviser to President Arce. “Arce looked like a victim yesterday and a hero today, defending democracy.”

Some Bolivians said they believed Zúñiga’s allegations.

“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, particularly those allied with Morales, echoed 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 maneuver was underway, it became clear that any attempted takeover had no meaningful political support. The rebellion passed bloodlessly at the end of the business day. In an extraordinary scene, Arce argued viciously with Zúñiga and his allies face-to-face in the plaza outside the palace before returning inside to name a new army commander.

Speaking in Paraguay on Thursday, U.S. deputy secretary of state for management, Rich Verma, condemned Zúñiga, saying that “democracy remains fragile in our hemisphere.”

The short-lived mutiny followed months of mounting tensions between Arce and 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, a prospect that 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.

Morales’ allies in Congress have made it almost impossible for Arce to govern. The cash crunch has ramped up pressure on Arce to scrap food and fuel subsidies that depleted state finances.

Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo told reporters that Zuñiga’s coup attempt had its roots in a private meeting Tuesday in which Arce sacked Zuñiga over the army chief’s threats on national TV to arrest Morales if he proceeded to join the 2025 race.

But 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.”

Hours later, panic gripped the capital of La Paz. Surrounded by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga burst into government headquarters, sending Bolivians into a frenzy. Crowds thronged ATMs, lined up outside gas stations and ransacked grocery stores.

The country’s fragmented opposition rejected the coup even 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.

In his speech after storming the palace, Zúñiga had called for the release of political prisoners including Áñez and powerful Santa Cruz Gov. Luis Fernando Camacho, also detained for allegedly orchestrating a coup in 2019.

Before being arrested, Zúñiga told 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.

Even if proven false, accusations of Arce’s involvement have stoked confusion and threatened more chaos.

“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?” Camacho wrote on social media platform X.

Bolivian officials have insisted the general was lying to justify his actions. Prosecutors said they would seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga on charges of “attacking the constitution” pending further investigations.

But pro-democracy advocates have already expressed doubt that any government-led investigation can be trusted.

“Judicial independence is basically zero, the credibility of the judiciary is on the floor,” said Juan Pappier, deputy director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “Not only do we not know today what happened, we probably will never know.”

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DeBre reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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