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Over a 3-hour period in Bolivia, a coup attempt is launched and then quickly quelled

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We go to the South American country of Bolivia, where a top military general attempted to overthrow the government.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yes, the chaotic episode unfolded yesterday over a period of about three hours. Armed soldiers stormed the governmental palace in the administrative capital, La Paz, at one point ramming the front door with an armored vehicle. The failed coup was put down quickly and the top general was arrested.

FADEL: For more on the turmoil, we turn to NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

FADEL: So sounds like a fast and furious turn of events in Bolivia. What do we know about this general and his attempts to oust the current president and government?

KAHN: His name is Juan Jose Zuniga, and until recently, he was the top military commander of the armed forces. And he was just stripped of that command. He came to the main governmental plaza in La Paz late yesterday and was flanked by soldiers, masked security personnel and several armored vehicles. He was asked if he was overthrowing the government, and he rambled on about saving the country, releasing political prisoners and vowing to install a real democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN JOSE ZUNIGA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He said the people have no future, and the army does not, quote, "lack the balls to fight for our children's tomorrow." This is all being broadcast live on TV.

FADEL: Wow.

KAHN: And at one point, this armored vehicle just started ramming the front door of the palace. There was also a tense confrontation between the general and the president, Luis Arce, who ordered the general out of the public square and called the people to the streets.

FADEL: Wait, so did the general just turn around and leave?

KAHN: Pretty much so. The president held a brief ceremony, appointed a new commander. Arce criticized what he called bad soldiers and praised the new leader. As soon after, the general was arrested again, live on TV, and Arce came out and rallied supporters.

(CHEERING)

KAHN: He thanked the people of Bolivia for supporting democracy and the crowd began singing the national anthem.

FADEL: Wow. I'm just trying to get my head around all of these turns in just three hours. Were there any indications that such drama, an attempted coup, was going to take place?

KAHN: Bolivia has been racked by protests, mostly about the dismal economy that's struggling. There's a scarcity of dollars and food shortages. Arce is unpopular and has been accused of making some undemocratic moves, especially with the opposition - some are in jail. And he's locked in this very public political fight with his once mentor, the former leftist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. They're fighting over control of the ruling party and who will be next year's presidential candidate. Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert at Florida International University, says this win over the failed coup will probably boost the president's popularity, but just temporarily.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: He still has the worst economy in the last at least 25 years. And now there's a crisis of basic food supplies, and especially in the city of La Paz.

KAHN: And the president still has to deal with the very popular Evo Morales, who can mobilize large groups of supporters.

FADEL: And so what happens now, especially with that general?

KAHN: The attorney general has opened an investigation into the coup and says there will be more arrests of those who participated. There's already a lot of speculation and conspiracies milling about who ordered the coup, and why did the general and his troops back down so quickly? And given Bolivia's history of coups and attempted coups, this run up to the presidential elections will undoubtedly be a rocky one.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn. Thank you so much, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.