• Bolivian President Luis Arce has denied accusations of orchestrating a coup, labeling them as lies and saying that General Juan José Zúñiga acted independently.
  • Arce’s statement followed Zúñiga’s claim that the president directed the mutiny to bolster his popularity.
  • Arce’s supporters rallied outside the presidential palace, offering political support.

Bolivian President Luis Arce on Thursday angrily called accusations that he was behind an attempted coup against his government “lies,” saying the general who apparently led it acted on his own and vowing that he would face justice.

Arce’s comments, his first to the press since Wednesday’s failed apparent coup, came after the general involved, Juan José Zúñiga, alleged without providing evidence that the president had ordered him to carry out the mutiny in a ruse to boost his flagging popularity.

That fueled speculation about what really happened, even after the government announced the arrest of 17 people, most of them military officers. Opposition senators and government critics joined the chorus of doubters, calling the mutiny a “self-coup.”

BOLIVIAN PRESIDENT SURVIVES FAILED COUP, CALLS FOR ‘DEMOCRACY TO BE RESPECTED,’ ARMY GENERAL ARRESTED

Some Bolivians said they believed Zúñiga’s allegations. “They are playing with the intelligence of the people, because nobody believes that it was a real coup,” said 48-year-old lawyer Evaristo Mamani.

Luis Arce

Bolivian President Luis Arce speaks during a press conference the day after troops stormed the presidential palace in what he called a coup attempt, in La Paz, Bolivia, on June 27, 2024. Arce on Thursday called accusations that he was behind an attempted coup against his government “lies,” saying the general who apparently led it acted on his own and vowing that he would face justice. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Those claims have been strongly denied by Arce and his government. “I am not a politician who is going to win popularity through the blood of the people,” he said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Arce’s supporters rallied outside the presidential palace on Thursday, giving some political breathing room to the embattled leader as authorities made more arrests in a failed coup that shook the economically troubled country.

Among the 17 people arrested are the army chief, Gen. Zúñiga, and former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador, who were taken into custody the day before. All face charges of armed uprising and attacks against government infrastructure, and penalties of 15 years in prison or more, said the country’s attorney general, César Siles.

BOLIVIA GRAPPLES WITH AFTERMATH OF FAILED COUP ATTEMPT AS NATION STRIVES TO RESTORE STABILITY

The president claimed that not only military officers were involved in the plan, but people retired from the military and civil society. He did not elaborate.

The South American nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as military forces appeared to turn on Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored vehicles, repeatedly crashing a small tank into the presidential palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters.

Senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo said among the arrested was one civilian, identified as Aníbal Aguilar Gómez, who was as a key “ideologue” of the thwarted coup. He said the alleged conspirators began plotting in May.

Riot police guarded the palace doors and Arce — who has struggled to manage the country’s shortages of foreign currency and fuel — emerged on the presidential balcony as his supporters surged into the streets singing the national anthem and cheering as fireworks exploded overhead. “No one can take democracy away from us,” he roared.

Bolivians responded by chanting, “Lucho, you are not alone!”

Analysts say the eruption of public support for Arce, even if fleeting, provides him with a reprieve from the country’s economic quagmire and political turmoil. The president is locked in a deepening rivalry with popular former President Evo Morales, his erstwhile ally who has threatened to challenge Arce in 2025.

“The president’s management has been very bad, there are no dollars, there is no petrol,” said La Paz-based political analyst Paul Coca. “Yesterday’s military move is going to help his image a bit, but it’s no solution.”

Soon after Wednesday’s military maneuver was underway, it became clear that any attempted takeover had no meaningful political support. The rebellion passed bloodlessly at the end of the business day. In an extraordinary scene, Arce argued strongly with Zúñiga and his allies face-to-face in the plaza outside the palace before returning inside to name a new army commander.

“What we saw is extremely unusual for coup d’etats in Latin America, and it raises red flags,” said Diego von Vacano, an expert in Bolivian politics at Texas A&M University and former informal adviser to President Arce. “Arce looked like a victim yesterday and a hero today, defending democracy.”

Speaking in Paraguay on Thursday, U.S. deputy secretary of state for management, Rich Verma, condemned Zúñiga, saying that “democracy remains fragile in our hemisphere.”

The short-lived mutiny followed months of mounting tensions between Arce and Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. Morales has staged a dramatic political comeback since mass protests and a deadly crackdown prompted him to resign and flee in 2019 — a military-backed ouster that his supporters decry as a coup.

Morales has vowed to run against Arce in 2025, a prospect that has rattled Arce, whose popularity has plunged as the country’s foreign currency reserves dwindle, its natural gas exports plummet and its currency peg to the U.S. dollar collapses.

Morales’ allies in Congress have made it almost impossible for Arce to govern. The cash crunch has ramped up pressure on Arce to scrap food and fuel subsidies that depleted state finances.

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Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo told reporters that Zuñiga’s coup attempt had its roots in a private meeting Tuesday in which Arce sacked over the army chief’s threats on national TV to arrest Morales if he proceeded to join the 2025 race.

But Zuñiga gave officials no indication he was preparing to seize power, Novillo said.

“He admitted that he had committed some excesses,” he said of Zuñiga. “We said goodbye in the most friendly way, with hugs. Zuñiga said that he would always be at the side of the president.”

Pro-democracy advocates have already expressed doubt that any government-led investigation can be trusted.

“Judicial independence is basically zero, the credibility of the judiciary is on the floor,” said Juan Pappier, deputy director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “Not only do we not know today what happened, we probably will never know.”

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