Sifting Through the Debris of Another Failed Coup in Latin America

This was probably the shortest lived coup d’état in Bolivia’s history. But who was behind it?

As NC readers are no doubt well aware by now, the South American country of Bolivia suffered yet another coup attempt on Wednesday — its second in just five years, and according to the Argentine newspaper El Cronista, its 36th since gaining independence from Spain 199 years ago. Research cited by CNN (in an article that, predictably, doesn’t once mention the US’ storied role in regime change operations) claims that Bolivia has actually suffered 39 coups, including this one, since 1945 alone — more than any country on the planet.

This was probably the shortest lived coup in all that time.

Whereas the 2019 coup was successful, at least in terms of meeting its immediate goals — the coup leaders, with the help of Bolivia’s armed forces and the tacit support of the US government and the Organization of American States (OAS), were able to topple the Evo Morales government and force Morales into exile — this one fizzled out in a matter of hours, leaving big unresolved questions about who was actually behind it.

A Powerless Coup

The coup began on Wednesday afternoon (local time) with an armoured military vehicle ramming the doors of Bolivia’s Palacio de Gobierno. When the doors gave way, dozens of armed soldiers surged into the building. The former Commander General of Bolivia’s armed forces, Juan José Zuñiga, who had been relieved of his position just a day earlier, stepped out of the vehicle and demanded a “change of cabinet.”


Speaking to the cameras, Zuñiga fired off a list of grievances and demands:

“Ministers are going to be changed, but our State cannot continue like this, doing whatever it wants. We are showing our annoyance, it is our duty, an obligation that your Armed Forces take back this homeland again. Enough of impoverishing the people and humiliating the Army… We have come to express our annoyance. We are going to take the Casa Grande (the Big House, the new seat of political power in Bolivia).”

Zuñiga claimed that he and his fellow coup plotters had coordinated the seizure of the National Palace with local police units. Tellingly, the former commander also called for the release of former interim President Jeanine Áñez, who is currently serving 10 years in prison for orchestrating the 2019 coup against Evo Morales. Asked if he recognised the authority of President Luis “Lucho” Arce Catacora, Zuñiga responded: “For the moment.”

Zúñiga’s biggest bugbear appears to have been Evo Morales, the former president and founder of Bolivia’s governing party, Movimiento al Socialismo. Just days before the coup the then-military commander criticised former Morales’ aspirations to return to politics in an interview with a local television channel, warning that he and his soldiers would, if necessary, take action to prevent such an outcome:

“He can no longer be president of this country. If necessary, I will prevent him from trampling on the Constitution, from disobeying the people’s mandate.” 

This was enough to lose Zúñiga his job.

“According to Article 246 of the Constitution, members of the Armed Forces must not discuss politics,” political scientist Lily Peñaranda told the Spanish broadcaster RTVE. “And Zúñiga was accused of having discussed politics precisely in that interview.”

Throughout the melee on Wednesday, the Arce Government remained at its stations in the Casa Grande, which replaced the National Palace as the seat of executive power in La Paz in 2018. Surrounded by his cabinet, Arce announced that Bolivia “cannot allow another coup to take Bolivian lives” [presumably in reference to Jeanine Áñez’s bloody coup against Evo Morales in 2019]:

”We urge everyone to defend democracy. And here we are, standing firm in la Casa Grande, with the entire cabinet. We salute the social organisations and cordially invite them to once again show the path of democracy to the Bolivian people.”

Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry issued the following statement:

The Plurinational State of Bolivia denounces to the international community the irregular mobilizations of some units of the Bolivian army, which threaten the country’s democracy, peace and security.

We call on the international community and the Bolivian population to respect democratic values ​​and support the government of President Luis Arce Catacora, constitutionally and legitimately elected by the sovereign will of the Bolivian people.

Crucially, Bolivia’s still-influential former president, Evo Morales, who is locked in an escalating power struggle with Arce, denounced from his Twitter account “that a Group of the Challapata Special Regiment ‘Mendez Arcos’ have taken over Plaza Murillo with snipers.” Morales called on the supporters of democracy in Bolivia to “defend the Homeland from military groups that are acting against democracy and the people.”

The response was swift. The country’s largest trade union, the Bolivian Workers’ Union, denounced the coup and declared a general strike. It also called for the “relocation of all social and union organisations to the city of La Paz to defend and restore constitutional order.”

Within minutes, Plaza Murillo began filling with protesters calling for an end to the coup. The scenes were reminiscent of the 2002 coup attempt against Venezuela’s then-President Hugo Chavez that resulted in thousands of people surrounding the Palacio de Miraflores and ultimately taking back power from the US-backed coup plotters. In La Paz, as in Caracas, the coup fizzled out the moment it became clear that the public remained firmly behind the sitting government. In La Paz, the plotters did not even have the support of the armed forces.

In the photo below, Arce is facing off against the coup instigators on the steps of the National Palace. By this stage, the coup was already as good as over:

The game-changer came when Arce himself named three new military commanders for the armed forces. With this one move, Arce regained control of events. The first act of Zúñiga’s replacement, Commander José Wilson Sanchez, was to call for the restoration of order and the return of all soldiers who had participated in the operation to their barracks. Within minutes the military had abandoned the centre of La Paz and Zúñiga and a number of his co-conspirators had been captured.

Both Zúñiga and former Navy commander Juan Arnez Salvador were arrested together with roughly a dozen other military officers. They could face prison terms of up to 30 years. In a declaration to the Organization of American States on Thursday morning, Bolivia’s ambassador said that around 200 military officers took part in the short-lived operation.

The coup was over roughly three hours after it had begun. As Reuters reported on Thursday, the Bolivian government had received prior intelligence that a coup attempt could occur, allowing it to take preemptive measures. But who was ultimately behind this failed coup? That is the question now being asked, not only in La Paz but in the capitals of many other Latin American countries, particularly those not fully aligned with Washington.

A Tangle of Motives

The US is obviously prime suspect, largely thanks to its long, storied history of plotting, staging, or on some occasions merely supporting regime change operations in Latin America. According to a study by Harvard University, between 1898 and 1994, Washington plotted and staged at least 41 coups d’état in Latin America. That’s more than one every two and a half years.

So far this century, even with the US largely distracted by operations in other parts of the world (the Middle East, East Asia, Ukraine…), there has been one attempted coup in Venezuela and one attempted Juan Guaído-led uprising (both unsuccessful), a coup in Honduras (successful, though the wife of the target of the coup is now Honduras’ president), two coups in Bolivia (one successful, at least in the short term, the other unsuccessful), an internal coup in Peru (successful), and at least one coup in Haiti (successful), since which time (2004) the country has lost pretty much all of its sovereignty.

Besides all of its priors, the US also has its fair share of motives for wanting to depose Bolivia’s current government:

Lithium. Bolivia has something that no other country does: the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, which is home to the world’s largest known deposits of lithium. It is not just plentiful, it is relatively easy to extract. Together with Chile and Argentina, Bolivia forms the so-called “lithium triangle”, the largest global deposit of so-called “white gold”.

In the last couple of years, Argentina’s lithium has drawn the attention of the US military, government and corporations, including, of course, Tesla, whose founder, Elon Musk, had the following (since deleted) exchange on Twitter:

La Paz is taking a different approach to managing its lithium reserves. Last year, it sealed significant deals involving two Chinese companies, the giant battery maker CATL and Citic Guoan Group, and one Russian firm, Rosatom, as well as a combined $2.8bn in investment commitments. Until now, the country has struggled to increase industrial production or develop commercially feasible reserves.

Meanwhile, its vast stores of lithium continue to attract the attention of the US government, military and intelligence agencies. Here’s General Laura Richardson, chief of US Southern Command, breaking down the situation for the US House of Representatives.

Russia and the BRICS. In April, Luis Arce announced his government’s application to join BRICS+. As we reported at the time, that application has already been endorsed by the Putin government in Russia. Following a meeting with his Bolivian counterpart, Celinda Sosa, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said:

“Russia supports Bolivia’s aspirations (to join the BRICS). In its role as president of the BRICS this year, Russia is interested in ensuring that the highest possible number of countries that apply to the bloc, either to become full members or to establish stable and permanent associations with it, receive a concrete positive response.”

Since then, India’s government has also lent its blessing. Three weeks ago, Arce visited Russia where he attended the Saint Petersberg International Economic Forum. He also spoke with Vladimir Putin about “expanding cooperation” with Russia to produce lithium batteries. In December, Bolivia signed an agreement with the Russian company Uranium One Group to build a semi-industrial pilot plant with Direct Lithium Extraction (DLI) technology in the Uyuni Salt Flats. The goal is to produce 14,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year.

Israel’s Gazacide. In late October, Bolivia became the first country in Latin America to break off relations with the State of Israel “in repudiation and condemnation of the aggressive and disproportionate Israeli military offensive being carried out in the Gaza Strip.” In April, Bolivia’s Foreign Minister Celinda Sosa said at the UN National Security Agency:

“Clearly Israel has decided to disavow the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, of international law, of human rights, in order to perpetrate a genocide against the Palestinian people.”

Revolutionary Change. As an editorial in Mexico’s La Jornada from earlier this month lays out, the US, together with Bolivia’s comprador class, has an even more pressing reason to depose of Luis Arce and his government: to put an end to many of the revolutionary political and economic changes MAS has instituted over the past 18 years:

Like many countries with a colonial past, Bolivia had a majority indigenous population for centuries, but it was governed by a racist, ruthless, violent and inept Creole elite, enriched not by merit or ingenuity, but by the appropriation of natural resources and exploitation of indigenous peoples in conditions of slavery or semi-slavery. In this context, MAS is not a simple political party, but rather the institutional crystallisation of the struggles of the oppressed, the political instrument that allowed indigenous people to stop being objects and take on a role as subjects of public affairs, guardians of their autonomy and creators of a new and opposing institutionality to the one that was built to subject them.

Over the past two decades, this movement-party lifted more than half of the country’s poor out of poverty and extreme poverty. It recovered the State’s stewardship over mining and hydrocarbons, put an end to the crude interference of US spy agencies, made unprecedented progress in the construction of national sovereignty and was an example for the world by proclaiming itself a plurinational State, in which indigenous nations are on an equal footing with Western-inspired institutions. To accomplish all these achievements, it has had to withstand oligarchic insurrections, a coup d’état, the constant siege of foreign powers eager to seize the country’s strategic resources (such as lithium and water), multiple forms of destabilisation as well as the natural wear and tear of all governing forces.

Rumours of an Inside Job

Clearly, the US has motives a plenty for toppling Bolivia’s MAS government. It also has considerable form — including, of course, its support for the 2019 coup against Morales. But for the moment there is no smoking gun. Evidence may emerge in the coming weeks and months confirming US involvement in Wednesday’s events, but in the meantime all we have is informed speculation and conjecture.

It is, of course, possible (though highly improbable) that the US was not involved at all and that the generals were acting on their own accord, or on behalf of Bolivia’s oligarchy. There is also a possibility, albeit slim, that the coup was organised by the Arce government itself in order to rally public support ahead of general elections next year as well as see off any risk of Morales’ carrying out his own power grab in the lead up to those elections.

So far, the only evidence supporting this claim (as far as I’m aware) is a statement given by Zúñiga to journalists as he was led away following his arrest. Asked repeatedly whether it was an “auto-golpe,” Zúñiga said yes:

“The president told me: the situation is screwed up, it is critical. We need to prepare something to raise my popularity. ‘Shall we bring out the armoured vehicles?’ I asked Luis Arce Catacora and he replied- ‘Bring them out’. Then on Sunday night, the armoured vehicles begin to arrive. Six cascabeles and six urutús, plus 14 Z from the Achacachi Regiment.”

What makes this somewhat believable is that Arce’s government is indeed struggling as the country’s multi-year economic boom begins to fizzle, leaving behind a significant shortage of US dollars. As The Diplomat reported in its June 12 article, Bolivia Turns to China Amid Historic Economic Crisis, “Bolivia is facing one of the worst economic and financial crises in its history,” and sitting governments always struggle to win elections during an economic crisis:

GDP growth is at its lowest level in two decades, with an economic recession, payments crisis, high inflation, and high unemployment rates to boot. The Bolivian Central Bank is also running out of foreign currency, particularly U.S. dollars, which much of the Bolivian middle class relies on for financial stability and market predictability. Recent scandals in Bolivia’s energy production, including long-term shortages of natural gas and electricity in remote areas, add to the turmoil.

So too do the rising tensions between supporters of Arce’s government and Morales loyalists have been on the rise. Some of the clashes have turned ugly. In January, two civilians are alleged to have died and 11 police officers to have sustained injuries in protests by supporters of Morales against judges who had disqualified his presidential candidacy for 2025. Morales accused Arce, who was once his Minister of Economy and close ally for many years, of being behind the ruling issued by the Constitutional Court, which disqualifies Morales from running for presidency after having already held the office on two occasions.

But the only evidence supporting claims that this was coup was an inside job are the parting words of the failed coup leader. And that is maybe just a little too convenient. After all, if the coup ended up failing, as it did in spectacular fashion, what better alibi than to claim it was an inside job? Such a tactic would also have the added benefit of sowing further divisions within Movimiento al Socialismo as well as in the country as a whole.

There is another aspect of this narrative that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. If Zúñiga was indeed acting on Arce’s orders, why would he call for the release of political prisoners that are sworn ideological enemies of Morales and Arce’s political party — including Jeanine Áñez, the leader of the 2019 coup that culminated in the collapse of Morales’ government as well as the deaths of “at least 39 people,” according to an investigation by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

For the moment, there is a a lot about this coup that doesn’t quite add up. What is clear is that the resulting uptick in political uncertainty and economic volatility is the last thing a weakened, divided Bolivia needs right now. This failed coup should also serve as a warning of heightened political instability across the globe as economic and financial pressures continue to rise.

Presumably, many governments in Latin America that are not fully aligned with the US will be on heightened alert in the weeks and months ahead, as Washington continues to vigorously stir the pot in its own “backyard.” As the US loses geopolitical and geostrategic influence in other parts of the world, it will inevitably focus more and more of its energies and attention closer to home. And that will inevitably mean more meddling in the affairs of other countries in its direct neighbourhood.

One government that needs to be taking particular care is Gustavo Petro’s in Colombia, once the US’ main staging post for US military operations in the region. Like its neighbours Bolivia and Venezuela, Colombia, under Petro, has applied to join BRICS+. It has also cut diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv and is one of embarrassingly few countries in the world to have actually imposed (probably backfiring) economic sanctions on Israel in response to Israeli war crimes in Gaza. In recent months Petro himself has repeatedly warned that a coup is being planned against his government. Those warnings should now be taken a lot more seriously.

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  1. zagonostra

    It is, of course, possible that the US was not involved at all and that the generals were acting on their own accord, or on behalf of Bolivia’s oligarchy

    Yes, and of course it is possible that Biden and Trump are the most qualified candidates to be president of the United States.

  2. Yaiyen

    Do anyone know why the present president and Morales are not united. Is this jealous from Morales or did the left again fall for CIA trick and get divided

    1. Roger

      Arce was nominated to run as President by Morales after the 2019 coup (the coup government had banned Morales from standing), his background is one of a banker and technocrat rather than revolutionary struggle (Morales’ background). Basically Morales, the true leader of the MAS wants the stand in President to step down and Arce doesn’t want to. Its a bit like Putin and Medvedev, where the latter became the stand in President for one term to allow Putin to come back and rule for more terms.

      The elections are in 2025, so things are starting to come to a head. Morales will win the MAS support as the indigenous (who are the majority of the population) leader. Arce, who is not indigenous, needs to do the right thing and step aside.

      1. Yaiyen

        I see, thanks man. You would think him been a banker would have disqualified him. That is just madness from Morales part to nominate that kind of guy. Remind me of what happened in Equador with VP betraying the base. I maybe wrong but i think he too worked for the banks

  3. Taufiq Al-Thawry


    “coup in Honduras (successful, though the wife of the target of the coup is not Honduras’ president)”

    I’m not one to mention typos, but in this case “not” instead of “now” changes the meaning to its opposite, so perhaps consider correcting

    1. CA

      June 13, 2023

      Xi, Xiomara Castro chart course for China-Honduras ties at historic meeting

      BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday held talks with visiting President of the Republic of Honduras Iris Xiomara Castro Sarmiento in Beijing, pledging to work with Honduras to steer the bilateral relationship toward greater development from a strategic and long-term perspective and to turn their vision of cooperation into tangible results for the greater benefit of the two peoples.

      “I believe that under joint efforts from the two sides, the China-Honduras relationship will experience sound and steady development, sailing into a bright future,” Xi said…

  4. The Rev Kev

    Haven’t seen a coup this incompetent since the attempted one in Turkiye a few years ago. This was only a very small force with no little planning, support or maybe even an idea what would happen if they had succeeded. The thing is that they themselves knew that it would not work. That is why that General tried to say that they whole thing was at the instigation of the President – which was heavily covered on the news here in Oz – so he must have thought out the aftermath of a mission failure.

    So why the timing? I would guess that it was a matter of now or never. Bolivia is now moving towards the orbit of the BRICS and if that happened, a lot of their present problems would go away. And he just made agreements with Russia and China over that country’s Lithium deposits which means that that country is getting locked in with those countries and if Musk wants any Lithium, he will actually have to pay market prices for it. So this year may be seen as the last opportunity to do so as if Trump was President next year he may have not have been onboard with this attempt. So maybe, just maybe this dud coup was run out of Laura Richardson’s office?

  5. CA

    This essay is excellent, but what is unrecognized is the profound racial or ethnic division in Bolivia. Evo Morales was the first indigenous president of Bolivia, and that because the development of a supposed national water system in Bolivia was setting aside the desperate need for water by terribly poor indigenous Bolivians. Morales fought for water for the indigenous and that was enough to gain overwhelming support, despite being resented and eventually driven from office by economically advanced Spanish heritage Bolivians.

    The problem is, will indigenous Bolivians be accepted in their own country?

    1. James

      A supposed national water system owned by Bechtel Corporation after the World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize their railways, telephone system, national airlines, and hydrocarbon industry in addition to water. Bechtel even convinced the Bolivian government to make collecting rainwater illegal.

      It was all straight out of Confessions of an Economic Hitman. And Morales had the temerity to oppose it.

      1. CA

        A supposed national water system owned [or constructed and maintained] by Bechtel Corporation…

        Yes, but keep in mind that those who would lack ready or affordable access to water would be overwhelmingly indigenous Bolivians. Evo Morales is an indigenous Bolivian. Necessary for a politically stable and growing Bolivia is a continual lessening of racial or ethnic prejudice.

  6. CA

    December 15, 2005

    Who Will Bring Water to the Bolivian Poor?

    COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – The people of this high Andean city were ecstatic when they won the “water war.”

    After days of protests and martial law, Bechtel – the American multinational that had increased rates when it began running the waterworks – was forced out. As its executives fled the city, protest leaders pledged to improve service and a surging leftist political movement in Latin America celebrated the ouster as a major victory, to be repeated in country after country.

    Today, five years later, water is again as cheap as ever, and a group of community leaders runs the water utility, Semapa.

    But half of Cochabamba’s 600,000 people remain without water, and those who do have service have it only intermittently – for some, as little as two hours a day, for the fortunate, no more than 14.

    “I would have to say we were not ready to build new alternatives,” said Oscar Olivera, who led the movement that forced Bechtel out.

    Bolivia is just days away from an election that could put one of Latin America’s most strident antiglobalization leaders in the presidency. The water war experience shows that while a potent left has won many battles in Latin America in recent years, it still struggles to come up with practical, realistic solutions to resolve the deep discontent that gave the movement force in the first place.

    That discontent may have found its most striking incarnation in Bolivia. Here, protests against the introduction of stronger market forces have toppled two presidents since 2003. And the discontent has given Evo Morales, a charismatic Aymara Indian and nationalistic congressman who has channeled much of the anger of his poverty-stricken country, a slight lead in the polls ahead of the Dec. 18 elections…

  7. CA

    Notice the sneering lack of understanding of or concern for the needs of struggling indigenous Bolivians by a prominent American academic economist:

    December 18, 2005

    The Future of Latin America: Another Such Victory and We Are Lost

    “Another such victory and I am lost,” said Pyrrhus of Epirus after beating Rome’s legions. Juan Ferrero writes about another such victory–this time for the left in Bolivia: *


    December 15, 2005

    Who Will Bring Water to the Bolivian Poor?

    — Brad DeLong

  8. Mikel

    “Presumably, many governments in Latin America that are not fully aligned with the US will be on heightened alert in the weeks and months ahead, as Washington continues to vigorously stir the pot in its own “backyard.”

    The US stirs the pot especially wherever they see China making moves. Any country not following the West’s lead on Israel or Russia is probably more likely to be moved to the front of the line.

  9. Louis Fyne

    Given the “Keystone Cops” nature of this coup—-I say MI6 w/a wink-wink from the CIA.

    Same bizarro-world template as 2016 Turkey and Prigozhin….

    1. wannabe “Great Man” gets delusions of grandeur—presumably nudged after discreetly meeting w/a western intelligence representative?;

    2. “Great Man” seizes/attempts to random government buildings thinking using the 1933 edition of “Coups for Dummies”;

    3. the government supporters and gawkers quickly mobilize (via social media) to see what’s going on in the Alt Stadt;

    4. Coup fizzles out when Great Man and his minions realize that they have been duped like Wile E. Coyote over the precipice.

  10. Bill

    I think it is safe to say that it was inspired by a country that thinks the US dollar is the greatest thing. The British aristocracy males married a woman who had two of the following: land, money, or titles[ ie. power in the House of Lords]. I think was not inspired by any place in Asia but more by the Empires concerns that Bolivia’s neighbour has just had a large port facility built by a Chinese firm. Oh and the incompetence of the attempt seems to be about the standard of the US or UK.

  11. Carolinian


    Why do countries like Bolivia have a military at all? Are they likely to be going to war with somebody?

    1. Joe Well

      What are “countries like Bolivia”?

      The military is necessary to prevent an invasion by organized crime, or by their neighbors or by the US.

    2. James

      I traveled through Central America and Costa Rica was heads and shoulders above the other countries in the region in terms of quality of life.

      When I asked people is Costa Rica “What’s your secret – why is life here so much better than the rest of the region” they all gave me the same answer. They all said it was because they abolished their military.

      Joe Well – you can’t possibly think that Bolivia’s military could prevent an invasion by the US. They are much more likely to side with the US against their own people than to repel a US invasion.

  12. Matthew G. Saroff

    “It is, of course, possible that the US was not involved at all,”

    The odds against this are so high that Mr. Spock could not calculate them.

    1. Nick Corbishley Post author

      Ok, point taken :-]

      “It is, of course, possible (though highly improbable) that the US was not involved at all.”

  13. CA

    August 4, 2014

    Real per capita Gross Domestic Product for Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia, 1977-2022

    (Percent change)

    August 4, 2014

    Real per capita Gross Domestic Product for Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia, 1977-2022

    (Indexed to 1977)

    August 4, 2014

    Real per capita Gross Domestic Product for Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia and China, 1977-2022

    (Indexed to 1977)

  14. ChrisPacific

    There is also a possibility, albeit slim, that the coup was organised by the Arce government itself in order to rally public support ahead of general elections next year as well as see off any risk of Morales’ carrying out his own power grab in the lead up to those elections.

    So far, the only evidence supporting this claim (as far as I’m aware) is a statement given by Zúñiga to journalists as he was led away following his arrest.

    This theory seemed to feature very prominently in the coverage that I read, despite the lack of evidence in support.


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