Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Is a Messy Divorce to Blame for Bolivia’s Botched Coup?

On June 26, hundreds of heavily armed troops in armored vehicles, led by General Juan José Zúñiga, arrived in the central square of La Paz, taking control of government buildings, including the president’s palace in Bolivia’s de facto capital.

As footage emerged of soldiers mobilizing outside his residence, Luis Arce, Bolivia’s current president, and other political leaders posted to social media decrying the impending coup. In a recorded video message, President Arce told supporters, “We need the Bolivian people to mobilize and organize themselves against this coup d’état in favor of democracy.”

President Arce, who was elected in 2020 following the removal of former President Evo Morales from office, confronted General Zúñiga as he and his soldiers entered the presidential palace. He ordered him to stand down and told him, “I am your captain. Obey my orders.”

After an outcry from political leaders in Bolivia, South America, and around the world, Zúñiga’s efforts seem to have failed, with the head of the army agreeing that Arce will remain president “for the time being.”

Since the de-escalation, Zúñiga has been arrested and is expected to face up to 20 years in prison for charges relating to terrorism and espionage. Arce has reasserted control of the military, replacing the heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

General José Wilson Sánchez Velásquez has been appointed the new commander of the Bolivian Army and appeared with President Arce on state television ordering troops to return to their barracks. On Wednesday evening, the armored vehicles that had surrounded the Plaza Murillo in the center of La Paz withdrew, and supporters of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the party of Arce and Morales, flooded the streets, having seemingly saved Bolivian democracy.

Since the failed coup, speculation has heightened as to why Zúñiga attempted to bring down President Arce and whether foreign powers had a role in the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected leader.

Upon his arrest, Zúñiga said he aimed to “restructure democracy,” and while his exact motivations remain unclear, his actions followed his dismissal by Arce on June 23, following remarks he made where he said he would arrest Morales if he tried to run in the country’s next presidential election in 2025.

In 2019, Morales fled Bolivia and was granted asylum in Mexico by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after what many consider was a United States-sponsored coup against him when he won his fourth term in office.

Controversy in the 2019 election followed the result of the 2016 referendum, where Bolivians voted against reforming the constitution to allow the president and vice president to serve more than two consecutive terms in office. Due to constitutional reform in 2009 that made Bolivia a plurinational state, Morales’s first term in office from 2005-09 was discounted by the Supreme Court, but his attempt to run for office in 2019 would have been unconstitutional.

Before becoming president, Luis Arce was Morales’s longest-serving Minister, having been appointed Minister for Economy and Public Finance in 2006. After winning the 2020 election with 55% of the vote, Arce allowed Morales to return to Bolivia, but since then, the relationship between the two has deteriorated, and a situation described as ‘one party, two leaders’ has emerged.

Ahead of the 2025 election, a major rift has developed within the MAS as loyalists to Morales are torn between supporting Arce, who, since taking office, has delivered a similar left-wing agenda to Morales and capably guided Bolivia through the pandemic.

While many, including the IMF and World Bank, credit Morales for the improvements in development, reducing inequality to its lowest levels ever, and making attempts to initiate industrialization in Bolivia, many are increasingly viewing such accomplishments as the result of Arce, who has steered the economy for nearly 20 years, during which unparalleled stability and success have been experienced, particularly for the poorest in Bolivia.

Now that Morales plans to run against his former ally, a growing rift has emerged. While the two embrace in public settings amicably, they have begun trading insults and accusations of corruption and incompetence.

Given Zúñiga’s statement regarding Morales, it seems unlikely that Arce would have a problem with such conduct, given many are already suggesting that Arce could move to invalidate Morales’s candidacy to prevent him from running against him, a tactic that has been used in Venezuela by the Nicolás Maduro government, which barred María Corina Machado from holding public office for 15 years.

Crucially, upon being arrested, Zúñiga told journalists that Arce instructed him to storm the palace as a political stunt. Zúñiga claims the incumbent told him, “The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity.”

While many have asserted that Zúñiga’s claims are to discredit Arce, it does follow that Arce needs to improve his poll ratings, particularly if he must face off against Morales, who has a hugely compelling, emotional, and revolutionary story that millions in the country resonate with, which Arce simply cannot match – the story of a career central banker who studied in the UK is hardly comparable to that of a coca farmer, union leader, and ‘socialist icon.’

Resultantly, while it’s easy to blame the United States due to its sordid history of sponsoring coups across South America, assassinating democratically elected leaders, and propping up leaders and regimes it is aligned with, the evidence until now suggests a less prominent role of foreign powers.

While reports from Declassified UK strongly suggest the United States and the United Kingdom played a significant role in removing Morales in 2019, the failure of the most recent coup may speak to its initiators.

Since 2020, Arce has implemented an economic and foreign policy out of sync with Washington; implementing a wealth tax on personal wealth above $4.3 million (raising 240% more than anticipated), restoring relations with Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, abstaining from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and ending visa-free travel for U.S. and Israeli citizens seeking to enter Bolivia.

In 2019, many cited Morales’s nationalization policies to explain his removal from office, particularly as they related to hydrocarbons and the country’s vast lithium reserves, which are increasingly needed for electric vehicles.

While such rationale could be extended to Arce, who has continued such policies and sought to roll back neoliberal reforms, the theater experienced on June 26 seems just that—an attempt by Arce to stare down the ‘threat to democracy’ from which he emerges as the people’s hero, a role Morales could not play and which detracts from the protests against the economic hardship and low levels of growth experienced in recent years.

Since the pandemic, the Bolivian economy has struggled to recover as vaccine hesitancy prolonged cautionary measures and encouraged slower economic activity. While the economy has started to improve in 2024 and inflation remains one of the lowest in South America at less than 1%, growth remains less than half as high as it was a decade ago.

The failed coup in Bolivia is a convenient distraction from the growing discontent with the government’s economic policies and perceived failures to kickstart the economy. As many accuse President Luis Arce and former President Evo Morales of allowing political party infighting to distract them from the people’s needs, Arce now has the ultimate justification for why Morales should stop challenging and undermining his premiership and step aside.