Coup attempt in Bolivia raises questions over role of US in region

An attempted coup in Bolivia has sent ripples across the region, reigniting ideological battles, and raising questions about the role of the US in political polarisation across the region. On 26 June, the commander of the Bolivian Army General Juan José Zúñiga, orchestrated an attempt to storm the presidential palace in La Paz.

The seeds of this crisis were sown amidst longstanding political tensions and economic challenges. President Luis Arce, who succeeded Evo Morales, faces mounting opposition from various factions within the country. One source of discontent with Arce’s government is economic instability and recession that affects large parts of the population.

Further to this, Arce’s left-wing government faces continuing opposition from Bolivia’s traditional elites, who once controlled much of the country’s resources, and who perceive Arce’s commitment to democracy and redistribution as a threat to their entrenched interests.

The ruling party, “Movimiento al Socialismo” (MAS) has been in power for more than 14 years and has created an environment where the opposition has struggled to find a foothold. The dominance of MAS and its extended period in power underscore the need to create channels to incorporate opposition voices in governance. The lack of such mechanisms has the potential to contribute to political instability because it alienates critics both from the left and from the right.

The recent coup attempt marks a significant departure from a historic pattern of civilian-led upheavals. Bolivia has a history of successful civilian-led movements that have removed presidents from power. The recent coup attempt deviates from this pattern, as it was led by military officials that represent a minority view according to which Arce’s government is dictatorial and illegitimate.

The current situation thus intensifies a longstanding political polarisation, with traditional elites and right-wing factions resisting progressive changes implemented by the governing MAS party. This polarisation is not confined to Bolivia but reflects broader regional tensions where ideological divides are increasingly pronounced.

The attempted coup illustrates a persistent institutional fragility in Latin American politics and the spread of far-right populist opposition to democracy in the region. The ongoing support for Arce’s government amidst a backdrop of deep polarisation emphasises a need for inclusive political frameworks to accommodate diverse voices and prevent future conflicts.

Latin American politics are intricately linked with power dynamics in Washington. With presidential elections approaching, the political climate in the US has important implications for Latin America. The spread of far-right populist ideas and authoritarian governance styles promoted by Donald Trump have legitimised and emboldened far-right leaders in Latin America, such as Javier Milei in Argentina and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. A political discourse that vilifies legitimate political opponents can encourage events such as the recent coup attempt in Bolivia, and it reflects a broader trend towards instability and authoritarianism.

Historically, the US has significantly influenced Latin American politics, often supporting coups and interventions to align the region with its interests. In 2019, The US recognised a highly controversial interim government by Jeanine Áñez’s and provided diplomatic support to her leadership.

This move was perceived by many as an implicit endorsement of non-democratic shifts in power, and it is consistent with the US’s historical pattern of backing right-wing governments to contain socialist movements in the region.

Bolivia’s rich natural resources, particularly lithium, which are crucial for battery production and other technologies, add another layer to this complex situation.

International corporations have economic interests in accessing Bolivia’s lithium reserves and these interests have historically played a role in political transitions towards government that endorse unregulated markets and privatisation of resource extraction.

The recent events in Bolivia also represent significant setback for the interests of Indigenous populations across the continent. Arce’s presidency, like Morales’, has been a landmark for Indigenous rights and representation in Bolivia. The recent coup attempt highlights the fragility of Indigenous political gains and has mobilised Indigenous groups to demand greater protection and inclusivity. The mobilisation of Indigenous groups and the social base of the government coalition has helped to fend off a coup, but a risk of further coup attempts continues to exist, so long as underlying conflicts remain.


Dr Johanna Amaya-Panche is a lecturer in the politics of Latin America at University College London and a Postdoctoral Researcher at PeaceRep at the University of Edinburgh.

This article was originally published by @theipaper on 29 June 2024.