Bolivia: Key Points of the Military Uprising and Aftermath

Soldiers attempt to enter the Government headquarters on June 26, 2024, in La Paz, Bolivia.

By Pablo Stefanoni* (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The tanks in Plaza Murillo ended up being somewhat of a farce that could have turned into a tragedy, in a political climate increasingly deteriorated by disputes within the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), now fractured into two wings: supporters of former President Evo Morales and those supporting President Arce.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 26, the Army’s Chief Commander, Juan Jose Zuñiga — who had been dismissed on Tuesday night but refused to acknowledge the presidential decision — occupied that emblematic square with armored vehicles. He even used one of them to forcibly open the doors of the Palacio Quemado, the former government headquarters now shared with the adjacent Casa Grande del Pueblo. Confusion about intentions and strategies prevailed throughout most of the uprising, while several government ministers placed furniture to prevent the entry of the uniformed personnel.

Tensions had escalated after General Zuñiga referred to former President Evo Morales’ inability to run for presidential elections again and responded to several of his accusations by calling him a “mythomaniac.” In an interview with the local program “No Mentirás” on June 24, the military chief stated, “Legally, Evo Morales is disqualified. The Constitution says that there can’t be more than two terms, and this gentleman was re-elected. The Army and the Armed Forces have the mission to enforce and uphold the Constitution. This gentleman cannot be president of this country again.”

Zuñiga was referring to a controversial ruling by the Plurinational Constitutional Court which, in a sentence on another matter, included a forced interpretation of the 2009 Constitution that would exclude the three-time president from the presidential race. The Constitution stipulates that only two consecutive terms are possible, but the court “interpreted” that it’s two terms in total — consecutive or not — which Morales presented as an attempt of political proscription by the “endogenous right,” within the framework of what he called a “dark plan” to remove him from the political field, orchestrated, according to him, by the ministers of Justice, Ivan Lima, and Government, Eduardo del Castillo.

Zuñiga’s threatening statements, appointed as Army Commander at the end of 2022 by President Luis Arce, angered the former president and Evo supporters, which began to speak of an impending “self-coup.” “The kind of threats made by the Army’s Chief Commander, Juan José Zúñiga, have never occurred in a democracy. If they are not disavowed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces [Luis Arce], it will be proven that what they are really organizing is a self-coup,” Morales denounced on his X account, from where he daily criticizes the Arce government, which he considers a traitor to the so-called “Process of Change.”

But it wasn’t just the former president. Zúñiga’s threats violated military regulations and the Constitution, which explains Arce’s decision to dismiss him. However, the military chief considered this an expression of “contempt” despite his loyalty to the president. On Wednesday, June 26, as reported by El Deber newspaper, he was summoned to be formally relieved, but he arrived at Plaza Murillo with armored vehicles and hooded soldiers. The country witnessed a general acting like a “social movement,” which in effect constitutes a coup d’état, confronting President Arce face to face after forcibly entering the Palacio Quemado, while the president’s aides accused him of being a coup plotter and demanded loudly that the soldiers withdraw.

Zuñiga’s isolation, without political or social support, possibly explains his attempt to give a political content to his rebellion: he said he would release “political prisoners” like former president Jeanine Áñez and former Santa Cruz governor Fernando Camacho, and that he would restore democracy. “An elite has taken over the country, vandals who have destroyed the country,” he shouted at the doors of his armored vehicle, in front of the Palacio Quemado and the Parliament. His argument that “the Armed Forces intend to restructure democracy, [to make it] a true democracy, not of owners who have been in power for 30 or 40 years,” fell on deaf ears. The internal and external reaction was strong.

Even imprisoned opponents like Añez and Camacho condemned the military action. Former presidents Carlos D. Mesa and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga also did so. Outside the country, leaders of various ideological persuasions — except Argentina’s Javier Milei, who left it to his foreign minister — called for defending institutions and condemned the insurgents.

Meanwhile, core organizations like the Central Trade Union of Peasant Workers of Bolivia or the Bolivian Workers’ Central, along with Evo Morales, who remains the leader of the coca growers’ unions in Chapare, Cochabamba (having his offices and fish farming venture there), called for a general strike, roadblocks, and a large march to La Paz.

Arce, for his part, gave a brief speech, also calling for mobilization, amid skirmishes in Plaza Murillo, where demonstrators were expelled with tear gas. He proceeded to appoint a new military command for the three forces.

With no rebellion in military or police barracks, Zuñiga’s rope to maintain the uprising and forcibly stay in his position was running out. Involved in at least one case of funds diversion handled by the military  during Evo Morales’ government, and without a notable performance in his career, this military figure was considered very close to Arce and seems to have reacted impulsively. His retreat from Plaza Murillo resembled a rout, with protesters chasing after straggling soldiers.

After being arrested, along with Vice Admiral Juan Arnez, a former Navy Commander, Zuñiga said he had acted on the president’s orders: “The president [Arce] told me ‘the situation is very screwed up, it is necessary to prepare something to boost my popularity.'” This left a grenade activated for the coming days. The idea of a self-coup seems contradicted by the course of events itself. What was the plan? — which appeared more like a succession of derailed events within a framework of severe institutional erosion, largely due to the confrontation within the MAS party.

Since returning to power in December 2020, handpicked by Evo Morales from his exile in Argentina, the relations between the former president and his economy minister for over a decade quickly deteriorated and ended in an open power struggle. Arce, who apparently had committed to not seek re-election in 2025, later decided to pursue a second term; and Evo Morales, who attempted re-election time after time, disregarding the letter and spirit of the new Constitution, considers himself ousted by a coup d’état in 2019 and believes he has the right to compete again for the presidency. This dispute has paralyzed the Legislative Assembly, in an economic context that today has little resemblance to the pre-2019 economic boom.

The shortage of dollars and fuels reveals exhaustion of the model applied since 2006, when Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president and, amidst a spectacular political saga, launched the “Democratic and Cultural Revolution,” which economically deployed a “prudent populism,” very careful not to increase the fiscal deficit and accumulate record foreign reserves at the Central Bank.

Arce himself recently acknowledged the diesel situation as “pathetic” and ordered the militarization of the fuel supply system, aiming to prevent smuggling of diesel subsidized by the Bolivian state to neighboring countries. The economic crisis particularly affects Arce, who, without great charisma, built his legitimacy as the minister of the “economic miracle.” Politically, the squeeze between the Executive and the Judiciary has weakened the Legislative Power, whose majority is also divided between Arce and Evo supporters, with each side accusing the other of “playing into the hands of the right.” The mandates of judicial authorities have also been extended, denounced continuously by Evo backers.

The President of the Senate, Andrónico Rodríguez, a coca unionist trained by Evo Morales as a sort of successor, tweeted after the military’s retreat: “From self-prolonged magistrates to a supposed coup or self-coup, the Bolivian people sink into uncertainty. This institutional disorder, where authorities illegally extend their terms and undermine democratic principles, is leading the country into a situation of chaos and distrust, aggravating the crisis and threatening the stability and well-being of the country.”

The aftershocks of the uprising will continue. Far from a truce within the MAS space, internal strife will intensify.

Part of the dispute revolves around the initials of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), a party of social movements that showed, in 2020, its capacity for electoral mobilization even in difficult contexts such as under Añez’s government — and that of former government minister Arturo Murillo, later arrested in the United States for corruption. the congresses of each wing of MAS have been contested, looking towards elections in 2025, the year of Bolivia’s bicentennial.

The weakness of the opposition, associated with the authoritarian, inefficient government marked by the corruption of Jeanine Añez, and with great difficulties in finding new figures, fuels the war between Evo and Arce supporters, who see power as an “internal” dispute. But amidst regional and global electoral volatility, this vision entails a risk, even considering that the electoral base around MAS remains strong and Añez’s experience functions as a “reminder” for social and indigenous movements.

It is still early to know how the failed revolt will impact the balance of power within MAS (which no longer exists as a unified party). After overcoming the challenge of the rebellious military group, Arce now faces crossfire political fire from Evo’s flank from within, as well as other opponents, who have already begun to speak of a “political show” to devalue the political capital that the president could gain from national and international support for institutions and the validity of democracy, and his decision to confront face to face with the “coup general.”

*First published by Nueva Sociedad.

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