Failure of Bolivia's latest coup indicates country has turned its back on turbulent past

by IANS |

June 28 (IANS) In 2025, it will celebrate its bicentenary as an independent nation, but Bolivia - named after South America's liberator Simon Bolivar - has had quite an eventful 200 years, witnessing at least 190 revolutions or coups, mostly led by military officers, from soon after its freedom to the 1980s. However, given how the latest attempt by Army chief Juan Jose Zuniga fizzled out in a few short hours amid widespread people protests, condemnation by national - including political rivals - and international leaders, and most notably, President Luis Arce's spirited confrontation with the coup leader, further changes of leadership by force of arms is no longer a feasible option. Even the example of the last coup - which came 40 years ago - is telling. While the accession of Jeanine Anez as Bolivia's 66th President in 2019 following widespread protests over the re-election of longtime Leftist leader Evo Morales was termed a coup - and the country's second woman leader is serving a ten-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy and terrorism, the 1984 coup was the previous attempt by the military to gain power. However, the attempt by a group of right-wing military and police officers, who abducted President Hernan Siles Zuazo from the presidential palace and held him hostage, ended in a matter of hours as they failed to gain support from the rest of the armed forces. The US also did not back the plotters, leading them to agree to a negotiated solution that saw Zuazo released and the officers treated leniently. Notably, this came years after the military, in a unique move, itself decided in 1982 to restore civilian rule, summoning the Parliament elected in 1980 and tasking it with choosing a leader. This ended a turbulent period in Bolivian history, as coups followed coups with military officers displacing their own comrades, with the country having nine Presidents between 1978 and 1982. There was just one in the earlier 1970s - Hugo Banzer, who was a military dictator from 1971 to 1978 and a democratically elected President from 1997 to 2001. Even before Banzer, there was another spell of military rule and instability after longtime civilian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro, elected in 1960 was deposed by his own Vice President - and soldier - Rene Barrientos and air force chief General Alfredo Ovando in November 1964. Barrientos was elected as President in his own right in 1966 but died in April 1969 in a helicopter crash allegedly masterminded by Ovando. Notably, it was under Barrientos, that famed revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who was trying to kindle a revolution in the country, was arrested and executed - on his direct orders. He was succeeded by his civilian Vice President Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas, who was overthrown by Ovando in September 1969. Ovando went to be deposed himself in October 1970 by a coup led by chiefs of all three armed forces, but the military triumvirate did not last even a day before Ovando loyalists regained power. However, Ovando agreed not to become President again, entrusting the post to his loyalist Juan Jose Torres, who lasted less than a year in the post before being overthrown by Banzer. The same story of coups, interspersed with small periods of civilian rule, was the pattern in the 1950s too and way back to the 1930s when the country's defeat to Paraguay in the Gran Chaco war - and subsequent loss of territory - caused resentment among the officer cadre. Not that the country had fared much better under the military - Bolivia became a landlocked country in the 1880s when it had to cede its territory giving it access to the Pacific Ocean to Chile after the latter defeated the combined Peruvian and Bolivian forces in the War of the Pacific (1879-84). But what lay behind the regular incidences of military takeovers in Bolivia? Most of the time, it was personal ambition or opposition to the political course of a particular dispensation or the tensions between political factions and social classes. Economic distress - as touted in the present case by Zuniga, or military defeats, involving loss of territory, also played a role, as seen above. In the 20th century, the Cold War calculations, especially to counter leftist tendencies of elected leaders or left-wing uprisings, were also a cause. However, what is heartening now is the broad political support. While Arce, surrounded by soldiers, deserves plaudits for telling Zuniga: "I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination", his estranged mentor Morales came out in his support, and so did the jailed Anez who denounced the coup attempt and championed elections for change of governments. (Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in) --IANS vd

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