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Crushing a coup gives Bolivian president a much-needed win

Bolivia is among the world’s most politically turbulent nations, having had nearly 200 coups and revolutions since it won independence from Spain two centuries ago.
Last Updated : 27 June 2024, 04:12 IST

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Chanting crowds lit fireworks and punched the air outside Bolivia’s presidential palace as rebel soldiers dispersed after a failed coup attempt against the nation’s socialist government. 

President Luis Arce thanked supporters Wednesday from the balcony of the building into which an army unit had earlier driven a tank in an attack which is likely to bolster his embattled administration as it grapples with shortages of fuel and hard currency.

“The government emerges strengthened from this,” said Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst and author, speaking by phone from La Paz. “Obviously, it’s likely to use this to try to quell demands from social sectors.” 

Arce, a UK-educated economist elected in 2020, has seen his popularity dive in recent months after natural gas exports plunged and the central bank ran out of reserves with which to defend its peg to the US dollar. That’s left the government struggling to keep paying the food and diesel subsidies which are key to its support ahead of next year’s elections. 

Bolivia is among the world’s most politically turbulent nations, having had nearly 200 coups and revolutions since it won independence from Spain two centuries ago. 

Arce, 60, named a new army chief while former General Juan Jose Zuniga, who led the attack, was arrested Wednesday evening. 

The coup attempt “shows the discontent with the economic situation, but Zuniga didn’t receive any support from the population,” said Alberto Bonadona, an economist who teaches at Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz.

Arce will get a burst of “oxygen” from the events, but he’ll still be hamstrung by the economic reality of a lack of dollars, Bonadona said. 

Shortly after his arrest, Zuniga told reporters that Arce himself had staged the events to lift his own popularity, though he didn’t provide any evidence for this. 

Rival factions

The country narrowly avoided a financial crisis in 2023 by passing a law to allow the central bank to sell about half of its gold reserves. Within six months, that had nearly all been spent: The bank had just 23.5 tons of gold left at the end of the year, and the law says this figure can’t drop below 22 tons.

Arce is currently battling former President Evo Morales, 64, for control of the ruling socialist party, which split into rival factions, thereby depriving the government of its majority in congress. That’s put further strain on the government’s distressed finances, since lawmakers need to approve overseas borrowing. 

Morales, a former llama herder who rose to become Bolivia’s first Indigenous president in 2006, immediately denounced Wednesday’s coup attempt. 

Since they are both seeking the presidency in elections next year, Arce and Morales are likely to remain estranged, despite efforts by Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other leftist Latin American presidents to reunite them. 

The coup attempt has “made an already fragile democracy even weaker,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based think tank. “We’ve got a long way to go in terms of legal consequences, re-structuring of the military and the role of the security forces.”

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Published 27 June 2024, 04:12 IST

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