Bolivian president faces coup attempt – and his former mentor

First they heard the sirens. As they looked out over the country’s main political square on Wednesday, Bolivia’s top ministers saw armored cars and troops pouring out of their doors. A shiver ran down the back of the Minister of the Interior, she said later.

Within moments, the president, Luis Arce, was addressing his inner circle: “We are facing a coup!” – before heading to the presidential palace to face the general trying to remove him from power.

The coup attempt failed and lasted only three hours. The attack was eventually carried out with the arrest of the general. His motive for the attack appeared to come partly from anger over his dismissal by Arce the day before.

But this was far from the end of Mr. Arce’s problems, or of the challenges Bolivia faces.

The 60-year-old Arce, a former finance minister, took office in 2020 in a democratic election that seemed to symbolize a new, more hopeful chapter in a country emerging from a period of intense political turmoil.

Now, aside from a dispute with the former general, Mr Arce faces a struggling economy, growing protests, criticism over the jailing of political opponents and divisions within his own party.

But perhaps his biggest challenge is an ongoing battle with his former mentor, former President Evo Morales, a titanic figure in Bolivian politics who has retreated from the halls of power — and is now fighting with Mr. Arce over who will be their party’s candidate. the presidential elections next year.

Mr Morales, 64, was the first indigenous president in a country with a large indigenous population. He was a socialist elected in 2006 and a leader of the so-called pink wave of left-wing politicians who governed much of South America in the 2000s.

He made history by involving broad sectors of Bolivian society in politics, but fled the country amid a disputed election in 2019 and chose Mr Arce as the candidate representing his party in a new election in 2020.

In an interview with The New York Times that year, Arce characterized Morales as a “historic figure” in their political movement, but said Morales would have no formal role in his government.

At the time, it seemed that the transition would be a success for Arce. He had served in the Morales government during years of strong economic growth, fueled by a commodities boom and the country’s vast natural gas reserves.

But now, after a time in exile, Mr. Morales is “really determined to return to the presidency,” said Gustavo Flores-Macías, a professor of government at Cornell University who focuses on Latin American politics. “He sees that he has been illegally deposed and that he has the right to run for office again. And Arce sees it very differently.”

In Bolivia, a country of 12 million people with no coastline, Morales, Arce and their supporters have long tried to position the country as a leftist counter to US power.

The country could also play a major role in combating climate change due to its vast lithium reserves, which are crucial to the global transition to electric cars.

The attempted coup on Wednesday was led by Juan José Zuñiga, who until Tuesday night was commander in chief of the armed forces. In an interview, Interior Minister María Nela Prada said that Mr. Arce had dismissed General Zuñiga after he made political statements in a television interviewwhere he had insisted that Mr Morales “cannot be the president of this country again” and suggested that the military would enforce this claim.

Before that, “Zuñiga was President Luis Arce’s confidante, his most trusted man in the armed forces,” said Reymi Ferreira, a former defense minister. However, the general’s dismissal seemed to change that.

The next day, at around 3 p.m., General Zuñiga appeared in the country’s main political square, which houses both the presidential palace and a key government building, the Casa Grande del Pueblo. He was accompanied by the commanders of the navy and air force, and dozens of soldiers.

Mr. Arce and his ministers were at the Casa Grande preparing to start a meeting, Ms. Prada said, and watched in bewilderment as military personnel took over the square below.

Mr. Arce, in a puffy black jacket and glasses, marched to the presidential palace, where, with Mrs. Prada at his side, he confronted the general, who was wearing his green uniform and a bulletproof camouflage vest. A crowd of military police surrounded them.

“This is your captain!” Ms. Prada shouted, referring to the president.

“We can’t go back!” shouted a Zuñiga supporter.

Mr. Arce told the general to turn around.

“This is an order, General,” he continued. “Are you going to listen?”

“No,” Mr. Zuñiga replied.

Then came a pivotal moment, Ms. Prada said. The head of the air force, apparently wavering, decided to withdraw his support for the coup, she explained. The police refused to participate. And finally, a newly appointed army commander-general ordered the tanks and troops to withdraw.

According to Ms. Prada, at least 12 people were injured by firearms during the battle. Seventeen people, including Mr. Zuñiga, are now under arrest. And about 200 military officers took part in the attempted coup, Bolivia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States said Thursday.

But while Mr Arce, widely known in the country by his nickname Lucho, managed to prevent a coup, it could be harder to get Mr Morales to back down.

As a former leader of the country’s coca farmers, Mr. Morales still has some support among voters and members of his party, the Movement for Socialism, or MAS. A recent survey 19 percent of respondents supported Mr. Arce and 9 percent supported Mr. Morales.

Mr Arce can legally run for a second term in next year’s elections, scheduled for the second half of 2025. It is unclear whether Mr Morales can do so.

Bolivian law prohibits people from running for more than two consecutive terms. Morales served three terms as president and successfully lobbied the courts to allow him to run for a third time because of a legal leak. But running for a fourth time resulted in a contested election and the unrest that unseated him.

Bolivia’s constitutional court ultimately has the power to decide whether Morales can run again.

Economic problems in the country include fuel shortages, high inflation and a lack of access to US dollars. They have sparked protests led by truck drivers, among others, a voter group that plays an important role in the country’s trade.

In the legislature, part of Mr. Arce joined the opposition to block his initiatives. And his critics have criticized him for going after opponents, including a prominent politician, Luis Fernando Camacho, who has been in pre-trial detention since December 2022 on charges of sedition and terrorism.

Carlos Romero, a former interior minister under Mr Morales, said the relationship between the former president and Mr Arce was now “terrible” and that sowing doubt about the legality of Mr Morales’ candidacy “is part of the political strategy of the government, which insists on disqualifying him.”

Mr. Romero said the coup attempt on Wednesday was “so clumsy and improvised” that it must have been an “arrangement with the national government” — repeating a claim Mr. Zuñiga made just before his arrest that the coup attempt was a stunt Mr. Arce created to make him look like a hero.

Mr Arce’s government has said there is no evidence to support this claim and has denied it.

Carlos Mesa, a former president and leader of the country’s main opposition party, said he believed Arce was already trying to benefit politically from the attempted coup “by victimizing himself.”

Wednesday evening, Mr. Arce appeared on a balcony overlooking the main political square, where hundreds of supporters had gathered and announced that they had defeated the country’s “coup plotters.”

“Thank you, Bolivian people!” he shouted.

Then the crowd burst out: “Lucho! Lucho! Lucho!”

Jorge Valencia contributed reporting.

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