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Bolivian army leader arrested after apparent coup attempts

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Led by a top general vowing to “restore democracy,” armored vehicles stormed the doors of Bolivia’s government palace Wednesday in what the president described as a coup attempt, before quickly retreating. This event marked the latest crisis in a country already grappling with political and economic turmoil.

In a matter of hours, the nation of 12 million witnessed a dramatic sequence where troops seemed to seize control of President Luis Arce’s government. Arce, however, stood firm, appointing a new army commander who immediately ordered the troops to stand down.

The rebellion, which lasted just three hours, ended with soldiers and military vehicles withdrawing. Hundreds of Arce’s supporters then flooded the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags, singing the national anthem, and cheering.

Following the retreat, army chief Gen. Juan José Zúñiga was arrested as the attorney general initiated an investigation. Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo announced that in addition to Zúñiga, former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador was also detained.

“The goal was to overturn the democratically elected authority,” del Castillo said, explaining the arrests.

By late Wednesday, Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo declared that “everything is now under control,” surrounded by newly appointed military chiefs. Novillo described the events as a “failed coup.”

Simmering Tensions in Bolivia

The coup attempt occurred amidst months of political tension between Arce and his former ally, ex-president Evo Morales, over control of the ruling party, compounded by a severe economic crisis.

These clashes have hampered the government’s ability to address the economic crisis, with Morales’ allies in Congress blocking Arce’s efforts to alleviate financial pressures.

During the rebellion, Zúñiga cited this paralysis, claiming the military sought “to restore democracy” and respond to public discontent with the political elite.

“We are listening to the cry of the people because for many years an elite has taken control of the country,” Zúñiga said, blaming politicians for the current crisis.

The crisis began in the early afternoon as soldiers appeared on the streets of La Paz. Arce and other political figures soon warned of an attempted coup. Despite the apparent move to depose Arce, the effort lacked significant support, and even his rivals united to defend democracy and condemn the uprising.

Presidential Involvement?

In a twist, Zúñiga alleged that Arce had instructed him to storm the palace to boost his political standing. “The president told me: ‘The situation is very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity’,” Zúñiga claimed.

Justice Minister Iván Lima denied these allegations, asserting that Zúñiga was lying to justify his actions, for which he would face justice. Prosecutors are seeking a maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga for “attacking democracy and the Constitution.”

The spectacle shocked Bolivians, who are no strangers to political unrest; in 2019, Morales was ousted following a political crisis.

As the crisis unfolded, Arce confronted Zúñiga in the palace, ordering him to withdraw the soldiers. “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” Arce said, as shown on Bolivian television.

An hour later, Arce announced new heads of the army, navy, and air force amidst cheers from supporters, thanking the police and regional allies for their support. Arce accused the rebellious troops of “staining the uniform” of the military.

“I order all that are mobilized to return to their units,” said the new army chief José Wilson Sánchez, emphasizing the need to avoid further conflict.

Shortly after, the armored vehicles withdrew from the plaza, followed by military personnel as police set up blockades outside the palace.

Regional Reaction

The incident drew widespread condemnation from regional leaders, including the Organization of American States, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, the leader of Honduras, and former Bolivian leaders.

Gustavo Flores-Macias, a professor at Cornell University, emphasized the importance of continued international condemnation of the coup attempt to prevent similar occurrences elsewhere.

Bolivia has experienced growing protests over the economy’s decline from one of the continent’s fastest-growing to one of its most crisis-stricken. Arce and Morales are battling for the future of the splintering Movement for Socialism (MAS) ahead of the 2025 elections.

Following Wednesday’s chaos, local media reported Bolivians stocking up on essentials, worried about what might come next.

Addressing supporters outside the presidential palace, Vice President David Choquehuanca vowed: “Never again will the Bolivian people permit coup attempts.”