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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bolivian general is arrested after apparent coup attempt

Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, President of Bolivia, speaks at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 20, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Julie Turkewitz, Genevieve Glatsky and María Silvia Trigo

A top general and allied members of the military tried to storm the presidential palace in Bolivia on Wednesday, before quickly retreating in an apparently failed attempt at a coup.

Hours later, the general was taken into custody on live TV.

Video on Bolivian television showed security forces in riot gear occupying the main square in the administrative capital, La Paz, a camouflaged military vehicle ramming a palace door and soldiers trying to make their way into the building.

Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, the general, Juan José Zuñiga disappeared, and his supporters in the armed forces pulled back and were replaced by police officers supporting the country’s democratically elected president, Luis Arce.

Arce ventured onto the plaza after calling on Bolivians “to organize and mobilize against the coup and in favor of democracy.”

“Long live the Bolivian people!” he shouted in a televised address. “Long live democracy!”

In all, the attempted afternoon incursion into the palace lasted just three hours. As time wore on, it became clear that Zuñiga’s plan had little support.

Just before his arrest, Zuñiga claimed, without providing evidence, that Arce had asked him to stage the coup attempt.

“The president told me,” Zuñiga said as television cameras rolled, “the situation is really messed up, this week is going to be critical — so it’s necessary to prepare something that will raise my popularity.’”

Moments later, the police whisked the general away in a white truck.

Afterward, a key minister in Arce’s government, Eduardo del Castillo, responded to the accusation by saying that Zuñiga and an alleged co-conspirator, Vice Admiral Juan Arnez, head of the navy, “have lost all credibility.”

“They were trying to win popular support and the support of the Bolivian people,” he said. “But the people of Bolivia no longer want coup adventures.”

Del Castillo added that nine people had suffered firearm injuries amid the chaos.

The office of Bolivia’s attorney general announced Wednesday evening that it had opened an investigation into Zuñiga “and all the other participants” in the day’s events, adding that it would seek “the maximum punishment” for those responsible.

Local news outlets previously reported that Zuñiga was dismissed from his position this week, which some in the country believed to be related to remarks he made about former President Evo Morales, a mentor of Arce.

The coup attempt came at a tense moment for Bolivia, a landlocked nation of 12 million people in South America. Arce, a leftist and the hand-picked successor of Morales — the country’s first Indigenous president and a towering figuring in Bolivian politics — is battling with Morales for control over their party and who will be its candidate in a 2025 race.

Bolivia’s economy is struggling, and Arce has been accused of moves his critics call undemocratic, including the detention of opposition figure Luis Fernando Camacho and former President Jeanine Áñez.

During the attempt to take over the palace, Zuñiga briefly entered the building, according to local reporters, before exiting and making a speech surrounded by masked members of the security forces. He criticized the government of Arce, and said the military was attempting to install “a true democracy, not one for a few.”

He also called for the release of several politicians and members of the military who have been imprisoned, including Áñez and Camacho.

“Enough of rule by a few,” the general said. “Look where that has gotten us! Our children have no future, our people have no future, and the army has the balls to fight for our children’s tomorrow.”

Shortly afterward, Arce confirmed that he was replacing Zuñiga, the commander general of the armed forces, as well as the heads of the air force and navy.

In a statement on television, the new commanding general, José Wilson Sánchez Velásquez, urged Zuñiga “not to spill the blood of our soldiers.”

The military’s initial move on the palace was immediately criticized by some leaders in the region, including President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. “Coups have never worked,” he told reporters Wednesday.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who has long expressed admiration for Arce and Morales, also condemned the attempted coup, calling Arce Bolivia’s “authentic democratic authority.”

It was under the López Obrador administration that Mexico first provided a landing spot and asylum to Morales after he stepped down in 2019 amid violent protests set off by a disputed election.

The secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, also expressed concern about the day’s events and called on all sides “to protect the constitutional order and to preserve a climate of peace.”

Bolivia, a deeply polarized country, has had 190 coups throughout its 200 years of history. And much of the discontent among members of the military, analysts say, stems from the feeling that they end up defending the established order, only to be punished politically, or with jail time, for standing by that order once a new government takes over.

But Carlos Saavedra, a Bolivian political analyst, said he saw little support in the country for this short-lived incursion, calling it an “adventure of a small group of soldiers.”

“There is no mobilization in any other department of the country,” he said. “It seems like it is Zuñiga’s intimate group that wanted to latch on to the command of the general of the army.”

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