Home News Bolivia’s president faces coup attempt — and his one-time mentor

Bolivia’s president faces coup attempt — and his one-time mentor

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At first, they heard sirens. Then, on Wednesday, Bolivia’s top ministers looked out from the country’s main political plaza and saw armored vehicles and troops pouring out of their doors. The interior minister later said she shuddered.

Moments later, President Luis Arce addressed his inner circle — “We are facing a coup!” — and headed to the presidential palace to confront the generals who were trying to remove him from power.

The coup failed after just three hours and resulted in the arrest of the general, whose attack appeared to have been motivated at least in part by anger at having been fired by Mr Arce the day before.

But this is not the end of Mr. Arce’s problems, nor the end of the challenges facing Bolivia.

Arce, 60, is a former finance minister who took office in a democratic election in 2020. Seems to symbolize The country had just emerged from intense political turmoil and was entering a new, more hopeful chapter.

Now, in addition to his dispute with the former general, Mr Arce faces economic woes, growing protests, criticism over the jailing of political opponents and divisions within his own party.

But perhaps his biggest challenge is his ongoing battle with his one-time mentor, former President Evo Morales. A key figure in Bolivian politics He has since stepped down from the halls of power — and is now vying with Arce to be the party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election.

Morales, 64, is the first indigenous president of the country with a large indigenous population, a socialist elected in 2006 and the leader of the so-called Pink Tide of left-wing politicians that controlled much of South America in the 21st century.

He made history by bringing a broad cross-section of Bolivian society into politics, but fled the country in a disputed election in 2019 and chose Mr Arce as his party’s candidate for new elections in 2020.

In an interview with The New York Times that year, Arce described Morales as a “historical figure” in their political movement but said Morales would not hold any official role in his government.

At the time, it appeared to be a successful transition of power for Arce, who had served in the Morales government during which the economy grew strongly thanks to a commodities boom and the country’s vast natural gas reserves.

but now, After a period of exileMorales is “really determined to get back to the presidency,” said Gustavo Flores-Macías, a professor of government at Cornell University who focuses on Latin American politics. “He believes he was ousted illegally and that he has the right to be a candidate again. Arce sees it very differently.”

Morales, Arce and their supporters have long sought to position Bolivia, a landlocked country of 12 million people, as a leftist counterweight to U.S. power.

The country could also play a huge role in combating climate change due to its vast reserves of lithium, which is crucial to the global shift toward electric vehicles.

Wednesday’s coup attempt was led by Juan José Zuniga, who until Tuesday night was the army’s chief of staff. Interior Minister Maria Neira Prada said in an interview that Mr. Arce fired General Zuniga because he TV interviewhe insisted Morales “cannot be president of this country again” and suggested the military would enforce that statement.

Former Defense Minister Remi Ferreira said that until then, “Zuniga had been the man most trusted by President Luis Arce and the man he trusted most in the military.” However, the general’s dismissal appears to have changed that.

The next day, at about 3 p.m., General Zuniga, along with the heads of the navy and air force and dozens of soldiers, appeared in the country’s main political plaza, home to the presidential palace and a key government building called Casa Grande del Pueblo.

Mr. Arce and his ministers were preparing for a meeting at the Casa Grande Palace when they watched in shock as military personnel occupied the square below, Mr. Prada said.

Arce, wearing a black puffy jacket and glasses, walked into the presidential palace and, accompanied by Prada, confronted the generals, who were wearing green uniforms and bulletproof camouflage vests. A group of gendarmes surrounded them.

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

“We can’t turn back!” one Zúñiga supporter chanted.

Mr. Arce told the general to turn around.

“These are orders, General,” he continued. “Do you want to hear them?”

“No,” Mr. Zuniga responded.

Then came the moment of truth, Ms. Prada said. She explained that the air force chief seemed to change his mind and decided to withdraw his support for the coup. The police refused to join in. Finally, the new army chief ordered the tanks and troops to withdraw.

At least 12 people were shot and wounded in the clashes, according to Ms. Prada. Seventeen people, including Mr. Zuniga, have been arrested. Bolivia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States said on Thursday that about 200 military officers were involved in the attempted coup.

Yet while Arce, better known in the country by his nickname “Lucho,” succeeded in thwarting the coup, getting Morales to back down may be more difficult.

Morales, a former leader of the country’s coca growers, still retains some support among voters and members of his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS). Recent Surveys 19% of respondents supported Arce and 9% supported Morales.

Mr Arce could legally run in next year’s election, which is due in late 2025. It is unclear whether Mr Morales can participate.

Bolivian law prohibits re-election for more than two terms. Morales served three terms and successfully lobbied the courts to allow him to run a third time using a legal loophole. But when he tried to run a fourth time, it led to a disputed election and unrest that ultimately ousted him from office.

Bolivia’s Constitutional Court has the final say on whether Morales can run again.

Economic problems at home, including fuel shortages, high inflation and a lack of access to U.S. dollars, have sparked protests by truck drivers, a key part of the country’s business.

In the legislature, a section of Arce’s party has allied itself with the opposition to block his initiatives. His critics accuse him of hunting down opponents, including prominent politician Luis Fernando Camacho, who has been in pretrial detention since December 2022 on sedition and terrorism charges..

Carlos Romero, who served as interior minister in Morales’ government, said relations between the former president and Arce were now “terrible” and that sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Morales’ candidacy “is part of the government’s political strategy to insist on disqualifying his candidacy.”

Romero said Wednesday’s coup attempt was “very clumsy and improvised” and must have been “an arrangement agreed upon with the national government” — repeating Zuniga’s claim before his arrest that the coup attempt was a stunt cooked up by Arce to make himself look like a hero.

Arce’s government said it had no evidence to support the claim and denied it.

Carlos Mesa, a former president and leader of the country’s main opposition party, said he believed Mr. Arce had tried to gain politically from the coup by “casting himself as a victim.”

On Wednesday night, Mr. Arce Appearing on the balcony Overlooking the main political square, hundreds of supporters gathered there and declared they had defeated the country’s “coup plotters”.

He shouted: “Thank you, Bolivian people!”

Then the crowd cheered, “Lucho! Lucho! Lucho!”

Jorge Valencia contributed reporting.

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