Bolivia’s Failed Coup Is the Symptom of a Growing Political Crisis

Details surrounding a recent coup in Bolivia are still murky. But one thing is certain: the botched military takeover is the symptom of a political crisis fueled by a split within the Bolivian left.

Bolivian now-dismissed army chief General Juan José Zúñiga is escorted by police after his attempted coup in La Paz on June 26, 2024. (Daniel MirandaI / AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Bolivia experienced yet another coup. During the afternoon of Wednesday, June 26, armed soldiers and tanks massed in La Paz’s Plaza Murillo, with one tank breaching the historic presidential palace. Images of the face-to-face confrontation between army general Juan José Zúñiga and President Luis Arce went viral. For Bolivians, the feeling of dread evoked was all too familiar. Fortunately, it was fleeting, with the putsch petering out within hours. Instead of bloodshed and repression, the failed coup left questions: Why did it occur, and what comes next?

Within Bolivia, there is debate over why the coup took place. The most straightforward answer is that this was the work of a disgruntled and, by all appearances, astonishingly inept and isolated general, furious with the president for his apparent disregard for his loyalty. Zúñiga displayed this “loyalty” on June 24 by publicly declaring that Evo Morales, President Arce’s one-time boss and current political rival, is ineligible to stand for election in 2025. As Pablo Stefanoni notes, in his June 24 interview, Zúñiga stated, “Evo Morales is legally ineligible. The Constitution says that you cannot have more than two terms, and this man was reelected. The mission of the Army and the Armed Forces is to make sure the Constitution is respected and complied with. This man cannot be president of this country once again.”

Zúñiga’s words refer to a December 2023 ruling by Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, which held that presidents cannot serve more than two total terms in office. This ruling negated the Tribunal’s controversial 2017 decision that presidents and other officeholders can stand for reelection indefinitely as a human right. That earlier ruling paved the way for Morales’s victorious 2019 presidential campaign, which sparked the last Bolivian coup of November 2019, ushering in a year of military rule under the far-right regime of Jeanine Áñez. By reversing its 2017 decision, the Tribunal has blocked Morales’s ability to run in the 2025 election.

The 2023 reversal is contentious. Predictably, it provoked great anger from Morales and his supporters. But Evistas, as Morales’s supporters are known, are not the only ones irked; the decision has also been criticized on two other, more general grounds. The first is the fact that it clearly differs from Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution, which only prohibits more than one consecutive presidential term. The December 2023 ruling, by contrast, states that presidents are limited to two total terms in office, an issue on which the Constitution itself says nothing.

The ruling is also controversial because the Tribunal that issued it is widely seen as lacking legitimacy in and of itself. This cloud of illegitimacy — and the constitutional crisis it has given rise to, of which the prohibition on Morales running in 2025 is but a part — stems from the delay of judicial elections scheduled for 2023, in which new Tribunal judges were to be chosen through a popular vote. These elections did not happen due to infighting between Evistas and Arcistas in Bolivia’s Congress, which prevented numerous pieces of legislation from advancing. The ruling concerning Morales’s standing in the 2025 election came a day before the current Tribunal justices were supposed to have stepped down. In their ruling, the justices also took a controversial and widely criticized decision to self-appoint themselves indefinitely and change the Constitution to allow for their own reelection (something previously not allowed).

Zúñiga’s public statement that Morales cannot run in 2025 would seem to favor Arce (and apparently demonstrate Zuñiga’s loyalty to the president); however, Arce had already taken exception to Zuñiga’s earlier remarks and proceeded to fire him the following day. Details of the firing were slow to be made public, which likely contributed to Zúñiga’s ability to command troops during the June 26 coup attempt. Arce’s decision to fire Zúñiga may have been a reaction to the general’s remarks, which were already a clear and illegal attempt to interfere in the political sphere. It may also have been forced on Arce by Morales himself, who jumped on Zúñiga’s comments to urge the general’s dismissal. His firing, it would seem, provoked Zúñiga to launch his coup.

As noted, the coup was spectacularly unsuccessful and short-lived. Among other things, this gave rise to some witty Bolivian memes, including one noting that Bolivia’s woefully unsuccessful Copa America soccer team, which was eliminated after losing its first two matches, was less awful than the forces involved in the botched coup.

Zúñiga claimed that he was seeking to “restore democracy” and that he would free Bolivia’s “political prisoners,” which in his view include Áñez and Fernando Camacho, both jailed for their leadership roles in the 2019 coup. But Áñez and Camacho both swiftly condemned Zúñiga’s actions, as did former Bolivian presidents of the center-right, Carlos Mesa and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, and left, Morales. The coup was also condemned immediately by the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) and peasant federation, Unified Syndical Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), with the former declaring an indefinite general strike to oppose the coup.

All this points to Zúñiga’s isolation and desperation. After his face-to-face televised encounter with Arce on June 26, the general and his troops quickly retreated, with crowds supporting Arce jeering them as they fled through Plaza Murillo. Hours later, Zúñiga was placed under arrest. Other leaders from the armed forces suspected of involvement have also been arrested, and Arce has already named an entirely new leadership of the armed forces.

An Autogolpe?

This is when a second theory of the coup emerged. This theory came straight from Zúñiga, who told reporters after his arrest that Arce himself had asked him to do something to help the president resurrect his flailing popularity. Morales has since echoed the claim that the coup was, in fact, an autogolpe by Arce. Like Bret Gustafson, I find this theory unlikely due to the fact that Zúñiga faces the likelihood of spending a decade or more behind bars.

Yet the theory will likely live on due to Morales’s vociferous support for it and three peculiar facts about the coup attempt itself: The first is that Zúñiga did not attempt to arrest or fire upon Arce during his short-lived entrance to the presidential palace; second, Arce was not wearing a bulletproof vest when he confronted Zúñiga; and third, Arce’s palace guards did not fire upon Zúñiga or his troops. A far-fetched third theory has also emerged: that Morales himself is behind the coup, which he is alleged to have engineered in order to proclaim it an autogolpe and make Arce look bad.

As noted, the evidence suggests that the coup was merely the result of Zúñiga’s impulsive reaction to being fired. Yet enough questions remain that a definitive conclusion on this matter is not yet possible. What is clear is that the coup occurred within, and at least partially resulted from, an extraordinarily difficult context within Bolivia, marked by three crises. The first is the aforementioned constitutional crisis, which revolves around the delayed judicial elections of 2023 and the explosive question of whether Morales will be allowed to run in 2025.

The second, and most fundamental, crisis is the intraparty split within Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) pitting Evistas against Arcistas. The Morales-Arce rift was initially something of a surprise since the two men were very close for well over a decade. Arce served as minister of finance for most of Morales’s fourteen years in office. Arce is widely credited with Bolivia’s strong economic performance during this time, with the country registering sustained economic growth and marked drops in poverty and inequality. Morales handpicked Arce to stand as the MAS candidate in the 2020 election, which Morales was prohibited from participating in by the military-backed government. Arce’s leading role under Morales was seen as a key reason for his landslide 2020 victory.

Yet after Arce took office his relationship with Morales quickly began to sour, in part because Arce reneged on his initial promise to not seek reelection. Last year the split turned into a gaping chasm, with Morales taking over the MAS and kicking Arce out of the party. Following this, the MAS and the MAS-controlled Congress have been irretrievably split between Evistas and Arcistas.

Among other things, this has effectively paralyzed legislative action on key issues like the country’s economic crisis. Bolivia’s economy is suffering a host of problems, the most pressing being a drastic lack of foreign currency. As of April, Bolivia held just $1.7 billion in reserves, a nineteen-year low and an 89 percent decline from the $15 billion in reserves held in 2014. This has sparked fears that the currency will have to be significantly devalued, which would lead to massive inflation. Growth has also declined in recent years, in large part due to the decade-long fall in Bolivia’s production of natural gas. In February, Bolivia suffered a painful downgrade in the international financial rating system, with Fitch Ratings lowering its grade from B- to CCC.

Arce survived Zúñiga’s coup attempt. The burst of domestic and international support he has received in its aftermath may provide a brief boost, but there is no avoiding the fact that Arce and Bolivia are facing immense problems on the political, economic, and constitutional fronts. As of now, Bolivia’s opposition remains in disarray, but if the split between Arce and Morales continues — and, unfortunately, there is no reason to think it will let up anytime soon — Arce’s ability to tackle Bolivia’s economic and political problems will be severely constrained, and the Right will have a much greater chance of returning to office in 2025 than it otherwise would.