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Attempted coup in Bolivia fails after president calls on country to mobilize in defense of democracy

By Tara John, Abel Alvarado and Stefano Pozzebon, CNN

CNN  — 

Bolivian President Luis Arce stared down a short-lived attempted coup on Wednesday, after calling on the public to “organize and mobilize” in defense of democracy as soldiers and armored military vehicles withdrew from surrounding government buildings in La Paz.

Bolivia has a long history of political instability, including military coups, and the failed takeover comes as the landlocked South American country of about 12 million people struggles with a spiraling economic crisis that has sparked street protests.

“We cannot allow coup attempts to take Bolivian lives once again,” Arce said from the presidential residence, Casa Grande, as the attempted coup got underway. “We want to urge everyone to defend democracy.”

In dramatic scenes broadcast on Bolivian television, Arce could be seen confronting the former army chief Gen. Juan José Zuniga, who led the coup attempt, as he stormed into the presidential palace hallway.

“I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination,” Arce told Zuniga, according to the Associated Press.

Zuniga, who was dismissed as commander of the Bolivian army just a day earlier, was later detained and seen being forced into a police vehicle, according to local media. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Bolivian President Luis Arce raises a clenched fist, surrounded by supporters and media, outside the government palace in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.

Late Wednesday, Bolivian Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo told a news conference the armed forces were “under control.”

“We now have total and absolute control over our armed forces. Everything is under control now. We urge the population that everything goes back to normal,” he said, according to state-run Bolivia TV.

The attempted coup was widely condemned by the Bolivian government and international leaders. Bolivia’s Attorney General’s Office said it has launched a criminal investigation against Zuniga and “all the other participants” involved in the incident.

Bolivia’s latest political showdown comes as tensions rise over plans by leftist former president Evo Morales to run for reelection against one-time ally Arce in general elections next year.

Meanwhile, the country is contending with an economic crisis marked by dwindling foreign currency reserves, particularly the US dollar, and shortages of fuel and other basic necessities.

Earlier Wednesday, footage from the scene showed armed soldiers occupying Murillo Plaza, a main square in La Paz where the national executive and legislative offices are located.

Armored vehicles were seen ramming into the doors of Bolivia’s government palace, according to the Associated Press, as former president Morales, who is a member of Arce’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, said on X that a “coup d’état is brewing.”

Video also showed some civilians facing off with soldiers in Murillo Plaza during the coup attempt.

Bolivian police hold the detained Juan Jose Zuniga, former general commander of the army, in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.

Rebel general vowed to ‘restore democracy’

Prior to his detention, former army chief Zuniga addressed reporters in the square on Wednesday, flanked by soldiers, saying, “We want to restore democracy,” as he spoke of the country’s economic woes. He had earlier been dismissed reportedly for threatening to block a bid by Morales for reelection.

“The people have no future, and the army has the courage to look out for the future of our children, the well-being and progress of our people,” he said.

He vowed “to free all political prisoners” including former president Jeanine Anez, currently imprisoned for what the courts said was her role in deadly protests that erupted after her ascension to power in 2019.

Amid the chaos, President Arce announced new military commanders, including Zuniga’s replacement as army chief, Gen. José Sánchez.

The situation appeared to have been defused when Sánchez ordered the soldiers in the square to return to their units.

“I order all personnel mobilized in the street to return to their units,” Sanchez said from a podium at the presidential palace to cheers and applause.

Armed vehicles were seen leaving Murillo Plaza soon after, according to footage from Bolivia TV. Arce also announced new heads of the navy and the air force.

CNN is trying to contact Bolivia’s government for comment.

Morales, who publicly split from his former ally Arce, resigned as president in 2019 following mounting protests over accusations of election fraud; at the time, he claimed he was forced out in a coup.

Before his dismissal, former army chief Zuniga had reportedly said Morales should not be able to return as president, and threatened to block him if it happened.

Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, professor of government and public policy at Cornell University, told CNN the attempted coup reflects widespread discontentment in the country.

“What is happening in Bolivia is that broad sectors of society, across social strata, across all levels, are very unhappy with the way things are, especially on the economic front. And, we have an election coming in 2025,” he said.

In that election, Arce and Morales “seemed to be in this collision course. Both of them angling to become the next president,” he added.

Soldiers block the street in front of the presidential palace, right, and the Legislative Assembly, left, in Plaza Murillo in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 26, 2024.

International condemnation

Bolivia’s Attorney General’s Office launched a criminal investigation against Zuniga later on Wednesday, with the Prosecutor’s Office saying on X that “all the other participants” involved in Wednesday’s events in La Paz would also be investigated.

The Attorney General’s Office said it will make “all the necessary efforts” to identify all persons involved and further investigate the attempted coup and impose the “maximum punishment on those responsible.”

Fredy Mamani, former deputy foreign minister of Bolivia and ally of Morales and Arce, told CNN that despite the “undemocratic” nature of “the tanks, the uniformed soldiers and taking the square… it is essential to highlight that the Bolivian people are united in the face of any coup d’etat.”

News of the attempted coup was roundly condemned by international and regional leaders, including Paraguay’s President Santiago Peña, Mexico’s president, and the European Union.

Military troops fire tear gas at people outside the Quemado Palace at the Plaza Murillo in La Paz on June 26, 2024.

“We express our support for democracy in our brother country and to the legitimate government of Luis Arce,” Chile’s President Gabriel Boric said on X.

The US Embassy in La Plaz said it was “closely monitoring the situation.”

“We reject any attempt to overthrow the elected government and ask for respect for the constitutional order,” an embassy statement said on X.

The secretary general of the pan-American Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, condemned the mobilizations in the “most energetic way,” on X, saying the “army must submit to the legitimately elected civil power.”

The EU said it opposed “any attempt to disrupt the constitutional order in Bolivia and overthrow democratically elected governments,” adding it stands in solidarity with the Bolivian government and its people, according to a post from European policy chief Josep Borrell on X.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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