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Bolivian general arrested after military coup attempt fails

Bolivian police hold the detained Juan Jose Zuniga, former general commander of the Army, in La Paz, Bolivia on Wednesday
Bolivian police hold the detained Juan Jose Zuniga, former general commander of the Army, in La Paz, Bolivia on Wednesday Copyright Juan Karita/The AP
Copyright Juan Karita/The AP
By Euronews with AP
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The South American country already struggling with financial chaos and political deadlock now faces a new crisis.

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Led by a top general vowing to “restore democracy,” armoured vehicles rammed the doors of Bolivia's government palace on Wednesday in what the president called a coup attempt — only to quickly retreat as their leader was arrested and detained.

The events are just the latest crisis facing the South American country of some 12 million, which is already enduring political upheaval and an economic crisis.

Within just a few hours, the nation witnessed a rapidly moving scenario in which the troops seemed to take control of the government of President Luis Arce. He vowed to stand firm and named a new army commander, who immediately ordered the troops to stand down.

As the crisis unfolded, Arce confronted the army chief, General Juan José Zúñiga in the palace hallway, as shown on video on Bolivian television. “I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” Arce said.

Less than an hour later, Arce announced new heads of the army, navy and air force as supporters road their approval and thanked the country’s police and regional allies for standing by him. Arce said the troops who rose against him were “staining the uniform” of the military.

“I order all that are mobilised to return to their units," said the newly named army chief José Wilson Sánchez. “No one wants the images we’re seeing in the streets.”

Shortly after he spoke, the armoured vehicles roared out of the plaza, tailed by hundreds of military fighters as police in riot gear set up blockades outside the government palace.

Hundreds of Arce’s supporters then rushed the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags, singing the national anthem and cheering. Shortly after the soldiers' retreat, Zúñiga was arrested.

Supporters of President Luis Arce chase soldiers as they flee from Plaza Murillo, after a failed coup attempt in La Paz, Bolivia
Supporters of President Luis Arce chase soldiers as they flee from Plaza Murillo, after a failed coup attempt in La Paz, BoliviaJuan Karita/The AP

Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo said that in addition to Zúñiga, former navy Vice Admiral Juan Arnez Salvador has been taken into custody.

“What was this group’s goal? The goal was to overturn the democratically elected authority,” del Castillo told journalists in announcing the arrests.

Late on Wednesday, Defence Minister Edmundo Novillo said “everything is now under control”. Surrounded by the new military chiefs appointed by Arce, Novillo said that Bolivia had experienced a “failed coup”.

So why did it happen?

From crisis to crisis

The incident comes after months of political tensions between Arce and his one-time ally, former leftist president Evo Morales, over control of the ruling party.

Bolivia is also grappling with a severe economic crisis and has seen intensifying protests in recent months over the economy’s precipitous decline from one of the continent’s fastest-growing two decades ago to one of its most crisis-stricken.

The political turmoil in the government has thwarted efforts to turn the economy around, with Morales’ allies in Congress consistently obstructing Arce’s attempts to take on debt to relieve some of the pressure.

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Zúñiga referenced that paralysis during the rebellion, telling reporters the military was tired of the infighting and was seeking “to restore democracy.”

“We are listening to the cry of the people because for many years an elite has taken control of the country,” he said, adding that politicians are “destroying the country: look at what situation we are in, what crisis they have left us in.”

Bolivian President Luis Arce raises a clenched fist surrounded by supporters and media, outside the government palace in La Paz,
Bolivian President Luis Arce raises a clenched fist surrounded by supporters and media, outside the government palace in La Paz,Juan Karita/The AP

Regardless, the apparent attempt to depose the sitting president seemed to lack any meaningful popular support — and even Arce’s rivals closed ranks to defend democracy and repudiate the uprising.

Zúñiga puzzlingly claimed before his arrest that Arce himself had told the general to storm the palace.

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“The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity’,” Zúñiga said.

Justice Minister Iván Lima immediately denied Zúñiga’s claims, saying the general was lying in an attempt to justify his actions.

In a post on the social media platform X, Lima wrote that prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga “for having attacked democracy and the Constitution”.

Following Wednesday's chaos, reports on local media showed Bolivians stocking up on food and other essentials in supermarkets, concerned about what would come next.

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But addressing supporters outside the presidential palace, the country’s vice president, David Choquehuanca, vowed: "Never again will the Bolivian people permit coup attempts.”

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