Power struggle in Bolivia: Generals fail with military coup


Lerato Khumalo

Anxious hours in La Paz: tanks roll through the city center, soldiers enter the government palace. But President Arce stands up to the military and averts the national crisis.

In Bolivia, renegade military officers have challenged the government and attempted a coup. However, President Luis Arce managed to thwart the attempted coup in the South American country. The main perpetrators have been arrested and are expected to be brought to justice soon.

The Andean country was on the brink of a national crisis for a few hours: soldiers stormed a central square in La Paz on Wednesday, armored vehicles rammed the gates of the government palace. Head of state Arce and renegade general Juan José Zúñiga stood face to face in the corridors of the Quemado government palace. “Withdraw all soldiers. That is an order,” shouted the president. “Will you not obey me?”

Shortly after the exchange, Arce removed the army chief from office and replaced the entire leadership of the armed forces. The new heads of the armed forces then ordered the withdrawal of troops from the city center of the government seat of La Paz. “I thank the Bolivian people,” Arce shouted from the balcony of the government palace. On the news platform X, he wrote: “We will defend democracy and the will of the Bolivian people – whatever the cost.”

The Attorney General’s Office has launched an investigation into the former heads of the army and navy, General Juan José Zúñiga and Vice Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador. According to the media, they are accused of terrorism and armed rebellion against the country’s security and sovereignty as the main perpetrators of the coup attempt. If convicted, they face up to 30 years in prison.

In Bolivia, generals have repeatedly seized power in coups. In the 1960s to 1980s, the military seized power dozens of times. Since independence in 1825, the country lived under military rule for around 100 years.

Under Zúñiga’s command, soldiers occupied the central Murillo Square in La Paz. The dramatic moments were not entirely without bloodshed: According to the government, nine people were injured. “The commanders of the armed forces (…) not only spread fear and terror, but also used firearms against the life, humanity and integrity of the Bolivian people,” wrote Bolivia’s Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo on X.

Coup attempt directed against the candidacy of the ex-president?

The motive for the coup attempt was initially unclear. “Enough of the impoverishment of our homeland, enough of the humiliation of the military. We have come to express our displeasure,” said General Zúñiga as he advanced toward the government palace.

Zúñiga later suggested that his coup had even been coordinated with President Arce himself. “The president told me that the situation is very bad. It is necessary to prepare something to increase his popularity,” General Zúñiga said on television before his arrest. “I asked him: ‘Let’s get the tanks out’ and he replied: ‘Get them out’.” The government rejected the account. “Zúñiga’s goal was to take power in the country, against the will of the people,” said Interior Minister Del Castillo.

The coup attempt may have been directed against a renewed presidential candidacy by former head of state Evo Morales (2006-2019). Zúñiga had reportedly said that Morales should not return as president and threatened to stand in his way if he did. Because of these comments, Zúñiga was informed on Tuesday evening that he had to vacate his post, said Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo.

The left-wing head of state Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president – resigned in 2019 under pressure from the military after the opposition and international election observers accused him of fraud in the presidential election. Although he has actually been prohibited from doing so in several court decisions, Morales wants to run again in the 2025 presidential election. Morales and his former ally Arce are currently fighting for power in the ruling MAS party.

Bolivia is one of the structurally weakest countries in Latin America. The landlocked country has around 12 million inhabitants and is about three times the size of Germany. Around half of Bolivians belong to indigenous peoples. This makes Bolivia the country with the second largest proportion of indigenous population in Latin America after Guatemala. The poor economic situation has repeatedly led to social protests.