What happened in Bolivia on 26 June?

The country with the highest number of military coups in history suffered yet another one on Wednesday. This chaotic and short-lived episode has deepened the crisis in Bolivia. The Revolutionary Communist Nucleus (the RCI in Bolivia) made a brief statement on the day of the coup. Below, we analyse what happened, and what it means, in more detail.

On 26 June 2024, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Juan José Zúñiga, led an attempted coup d'état. A day earlier, Zúñiga had been removed from his post (but not yet replaced) by President Luis Arce for threatening to arrest Evo Morales, should he stand in the elections.

On Wednesday afternoon, soldiers were mobilised to occupy Plaza Murillo. Evo warned that a coup was in the making and called for the mobilisation of the population in “defence of democracy”. Arce did the same shortly after, and the Bolivian Workers’ Centre (COB) called for an indefinite general strike to stop the coup.

Zúñiga told the media that a new ministerial cabinet would be formed, which is equivalent to saying that the current government would be replaced. After knocking down the doors of the Government Palace with a tank, there was a dramatic confrontation between Arce and general Zúñiga. Without any protection, Arce commanded Zúñiga, who had several armed military men at his side, to demobilise his troops. Zúñiga refused, but ended up withdrawing from the building shortly thereafter.

By now, many had gathered around Plaza Murillo, chanting slogans in support of Arce and against the military intervention. At the same time, all the country's political figures, including even reactionaries like Luis Fernando Camacho and Jeanine Añez, condemned what was unfolding.

The coup seemed to be collapsing: Arce completely replaced the military high command, installing new commanders-in-chief, who ordered the troops occupying Plaza Murillo to withdraw. As they did so, they were pursued by angry crowds. At the same time, Zúñiga fled in an armoured vehicle, but did not get very far before being arrested.

He then addressed the press and made a very peculiar statement. According to Zúñiga, Arce had ordered him to carry out a “self-coup” because of the latter’s low popularity, in order to get him out of his “screwed up” situation.

In any case, he was arrested and now faces sedition charges, along with the commanders-in-chief of the navy and air force, as well as other military personnel and civilians.

How can we make sense of this?

JJZ Image Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional Wikimedia CommonsFrom the outset, the coup seemed to have a certain political logic of its own / Image: Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional, Wikimedia Commons

How can we make sense of this bizarre situation? Was it really a ‘self-coup’? What consequences will it have for the country? And, most importantly, what lessons should communists and all conscious class fighters draw from it?

First of all, why did Zúñiga carry out this coup d'état? The hypothesis of supporters of former-president Evo Morales within MAS – the ruling party – and various groups within the right-wing opposition, is that this was indeed a ‘self-coup’. Certain aspects of the coup, such as the face-to-face confrontation between Arce and Zúñiga – in which the former was unarmed and unprotected – would seem to lend themselves to this idea. But this does not survive closer scrutiny.

From the outset, the coup seemed to have a certain political logic of its own. Apart from talking about completely replacing the ministerial cabinet, Zúñiga attacked the lack of respect for the armed forces – let us not forget that he had been dismissed only a short time before – and said that “political prisoners” like Camacho and Añez would be released.

It was only once it had become clear that he would not get away with it that he launched his accusation of a ‘self-coup’ against Arce. But a cornered lion will try anything to escape, or at least deal a good blow to his enemy before he falls. Zúñiga later changed his story again in his official arrest statement to the police, attacking other army commanders for not fulfilling their assigned role.

Furthermore, carrying out a self-coup under the current conditions would have been completely antithetical to Arce’s interests. The coup has had a profoundly destabilising effect on the economy and politics, further weakening his position. This is an obvious consequence of any coup attempt, and it is hard to imagine that Arce would not have considered this.

It is also necessary to stress another important point. The theory of a ‘self-coup’ distracts from the extremely reactionary role played by the army. The army is an essential part of the capitalist state. Whenever there have been military interventions in our country, it has always been in the service of imperialism and the capitalist oligarchy.

It is important to note that Evo has once again aligned himself with the right-wing opposition against Arce. Evo still has considerable influence among a certain layer of the masses, and the fact that he is turning his attention to an alleged self-coup rather than mobilising against the actual and concrete fact that an army general attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government – a government of his own party! – is striking.

Were the imperialists involved? This is a question we cannot answer definitively. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that anything of importance happens within the army without the US embassy and its intelligence services being aware of it. Bolivia is rich in strategic mineral resources, and control over these resources is disputed by the US and other rival powers (China, Russia, Iran).

However, the coup seemed to take foreign governments by surprise, and they condemned it. Other than issuing a security alert due to the military presence in Plaza Murillo, the US embassy maintained its silence. And as mentioned, Zúñiga did not receive open support from any sector.

The conditions for a coup

bolivia coup Image Fernando6718 Wikimedia CommonsThe necessary conditions for a coup d'état are not currently present in Bolivia / Image: Fernando6718, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is that the necessary conditions for a coup d'état are not currently present in Bolivia. One of the indications of this is the speed with which the masses mobilised against the coup. The COB was quick to call an indefinite general strike. If the military coup had not failed when it did, the general mobilisation of the working class would have probably overthrown them shortly thereafter, or else it would at least have begun openly confronting the military on the streets.

Historically and as a general rule, the ruling class only resorts to military dictatorship in situations of extreme instability, when its system is threatened and on the verge of a political collapse. When the working class is unable to overthrow capitalism, yet, at the same time, the capitalists are too weak to re-establish order, we see the emergence of what Marxists call Bonapartism. Here, the state can rise far above society and – represented by its strongest wing: the army – uses violence to ‘stabilise the situation’.

Historical examples of Bonapartism in the region include the dictatorships installed under Operation Condor. Banzer in Bolivia came to power by crushing the Popular Assembly, which was an embryonic Soviet – i.e. an organ of workers’ control formed in a revolutionary situation.

In Chile, Pinochet staged his coup d'état to crush Allende’s Popular Unity government and, above all, the masses, who were beginning to take things into their own hands by occupying the land and the factories.

However, in both cases, it was necessary that the energy of the workers’ movement was to some extent exhausted before the military could carry out its coup. In Bolivia, the Popular Assembly had existed for several months but was at an impasse which paralysed the workers. In Chile, it was Allende’s insistence on remaining within the framework of capitalism, against the will of the workers, that created enough passivity to allow Pinochet's coup.

That is clearly not the situation in Bolivia today. There is a lot of confusion in the labour movement, but it is still very much capable of mobilising against such a clear threat as military dictatorship. It should also be added that a coup d'état, rather than securing the ruling class' position, can provoke a revolutionary movement under certain conditions. Crucially, however, a revolutionary leadership with a Marxist programme is necessary for such a movement to succeed.

It is clear that Bolivia is indeed in a deepening crisis, but a critical point has not yet been reached, although it is approaching. The army’s re-emergence as an independent actor in last Wednesday’s failed coup is both an expression of this crisis and a factor in deepening it. The economy, already in bad shape before, is now struggling to stay afloat. We are not yet in a full-blown economic crisis, but the first signs of danger, such as the shortage of dollars, are worsening.

Politically, the crisis is developing around the ruling party, the MAS, but it may become more generalised as the August 2025 elections approach. Any illusions of a rapprochement between the two wings of MAS to fight the common enemy of military intervention lie in tatters. The division in the party has only worsened. The right and centre parties are simply a reflection of the pathetic and parasitic Bolivian bourgeoisie and are constantly in crisis. The conflict developing around the self-appointed judges is another typical expression of the backward and corrupt capitalist state, which is not something wholly unique to Bolivia.

The threat of military intervention has not gone away; what happened on 26 June is a warning of the instability to come. It is necessary to remain vigilant. The experience of 1973 in Chile shows that such failed coups can be mere rehearsals for a more serious attempt in the future. And the army in Bolivia continues to play the same role it played in the 1970s here and in the rest of Latin America.

In a capitalist state, the armed forces will always serve the interests of national and international capital. The supposed ‘decolonisation’ of the armed forces that MAS promised when it came to power has failed. The only way to effectively ‘decolonise’ the army – that is, to abolish its role as a tool of imperialism – is not to change a few symbols but to destroy it and replace it with the armed people, with democratically elected officers, instead of the oligarchic and reactionary caste presently at the top of the army.

But this would mean destroying the basis of the capitalist state and, with it, Bolivian capitalism itself. In other words, the only way to ensure that there will never again be a military dictatorship is socialist revolution and the institution of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the rule of the oppressed workers and peasants against the oppressive capitalist minority.

Bolivia, which not so long ago seemed immune to the capitalist crisis, a shining example of the success of reformism, now marches hand-in-hand with world capitalism towards the abyss. The exhaustion of the cycle of high commodity prices that gave a certain stability to the MAS governments during their first decade in power, is now the cause of its crisis.

This country has had many military dictatorships and a good number of failed revolutions. We hope never to see a military dictatorship again, but we can be absolutely sure that the mole of revolution will rise again in Bolivia and all over the world. The only guarantee of success for the revolution is the existence of a revolutionary communist leadership rooted in the working masses. We, comrades of Núcleo Comunista Revolucionario, the Revolutionary Communist International in Bolivia, are building the embryo of such a party – join us!

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