LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivians chanting in support of the president rallied outside his palace on Thursday, denouncing an abortive coup attempt that had threatened to pitch the long-troubled South American democracy into chaos.

The nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as Bolivian military forces appeared to turn on the government of President Luis Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored personnel carriers, crashing a tank into the presidential palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters.

Bolivia’s embattled President Arce — who has struggled to control a politically paralyzed country reeling from shortages of foreign currency and fuel — awoke Thursday to supporters raising signs that advocated for democracy and condemned the now-ousted Bolivian army chief, Gen. Juan José Zúñiga, who led Wednesday’s thwarted coup. Riot police still stood sentinel outside palace doors.

Before his arrest late Wednesday, Zúñiga alleged without providing evidence that Arce himself had ordered the general to carry out the coup attempt in a ruse to boost the president’s popularity, fueling a frenzy of speculation. Opposition senators and government critics have echoed the accusations, calling the turmoil a “self-coup” — claims strongly denied by the government.

In La Paz’s main Plaza Murillo, just hours after it was filled with tanks and armored vehicles, demonstrators addressed Arce by his nickname, shouting “Lucho, you are not alone!”

Analysts say that the surge of public support, even if fleeting, provides Arce with a badly needed reprieve from the leader’s political rivalry with his erstwhile ally, former President Evo Morales. Threatening to challenge Arce in 2025 primaries, Morales’ renewed political ambitions have sparked an unprecedented rift in their ruling socialist party.

“Arce bought six weeks of improved approval numbers,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “Bolivia’s democracy remains very fragile, and definitely a great deal more fragile today than it was yesterday.”

Many Bolivians interviewed in the streets accused Arce of orchestrating an elaborate hoax to boost his flagging popularity, as Zúñiga alleged. A surge of posts on social media also expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the coup.

“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. “It has been pre-planned, premeditated.”

Louisa Torres, a 56-year-old newspaper vendor, said she also believed it was a “self-coup,” saying, “God will be the judge of it.”

Soon after the bloodless military action was underway, it became clear that any attempted takeover had no meaningful political support. Arce refused to relent and instead named a new army commander, who immediately ordered troops to retreat, ending the rebellion after just three head-snapping hours.

“Here we are, firm, in the presidential palace, to confront any coup attempt,” Arce said after facing down Zúñiga. Hundreds of the president’s supporters surged into streets surrounding the palace Wednesday night, singing the national anthem and cheering as fireworks exploded overhead.

Authorities swiftly arrested Zúñiga as his soldiers retreated from central La Paz.

“Their goal was to overturn the democratically elected authority,” Government Minister Eduardo del Castillo told journalists in announcing the arrests of Zúñiga along with an alleged co-conspirator, former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador.

The short-lived mutiny followed months of mounting tensions between Arce and ex-President Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president and global leftist icon. Years after mass protests and a deadly crackdown prompted Morales to resign and flee in 2019 — an ouster under pressure from the military that his supporters view as a coup — he has staged a dramatic political comeback.

A vow by Morales to run in 2025 elections despite a constitutional court ruling has rattled President 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. The cash crunch has ramped up pressure on Arce to scrap food and fuel subsidies, a combustible political move ahead of elections.

Wednesday’s turmoil began earlier this week, Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo said, when Arce dismissed Zuñiga in a private meeting Tuesday over the army chief’s threats to arrest Morales if he proceeded to join the 2025 race. Arce has also denied the legitimacy of Morales’ presidential bid.

In their meeting, 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.”

Mere hours later, panic gripped the capital of La Paz. Tailed by armored vehicles and supporters, Zuñiga burst into government headquarters and declared that he was sick of political infighting. “The armed forces intend to restore the democracy,” he said.

Bolivians — though no stranger to political conflict in their country that has witnessed some 190 coups — thronged ATMs, formed long lines outside gas stations and ransacked grocery stores.

The country’s fragmented opposition rejected the coup before it was clear it had failed. Former interim President Jeanine Áñez, detained for her role in Morales’ 2019 ouster, said that soldiers sought to “destroy the constitutional order,” but appealed to both Arce and Morales not to run in the 2025 elections.

Santa Cruz Gov. Luis Fernando Camacho, also detained for allegedly orchestrating a coup in 2019, demanded answers from Arce’s government on Thursday as confusion and conspiracy theories abounded.

“Was it a media spectacle put on by the government itself, as General Zúñiga says? Was it just some military madness? Was it simply another example of lack of control?” he wrote on social media platform X. “What happened yesterday? Explain and show your face, president.”

Just before his arrest, Zúñiga spoke on national TV, claiming that Arce had asked the general to storm the palace and bring armored vehicles.

“The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity,’” Zúñiga quoted the Bolivian leader as saying.

“This has been a set-up,” said Carlos Romero, a former official in the Morales government. “Zúñiga followed the script as he was ordered to.”

Justice Minister Iván Lima denied Zúñiga’s claims, insisting the general was lying to justify his actions. Prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga on charges of “attacking the constitution,” he said.

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DeBre reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.



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