Despite a recent warning by Bolivian President Evo Morales that opposition groups would like to spark a coup, Bolivia's armed forces are very likely to remain loyal to the president.
Bolivian President Evo Morales on June 19 warned that opposition leaders are trying to provoke a military coup. He then reshuffled some military leadership posts, including the head of his personal security detail. The military affirmed that it supports Morales.
Although Bolivia has a long tradition of military coups, there have been none in the past 25 years, and one is very unlikely under Morales. Not only does Morales have an amiable relationship with the military, but he also has strong support from Bolivia's indigenous populace, and the military does not want to risk a civil war.
As Bolivia's first indigenous president, Morales has a strong following among the country's highlander indigenous people. If the military were to overthrow Morales, there is a strong risk his supporters would shut down the country's roads and stage violent protests against the military in order to restore him to power -- and indigenous members of the military would not necessarily obey their commanders when called upon to enforce the coup.
Bolivia's officer corps is made up of a mixture of highlanders and lowlanders; one of its institutional aims is to transcend the country's ethnic divisions. This mixed military leadership has had a generally positive relationship with Morales, likely linked to increased military procurement efforts under Morales, aided by Venezuela's largesse. The military has even accepted without complaint Morales' call for a new emphasis on soldiers' involvement in civil works projects -- part of a trend throughout South America as civilian governments try to distance their militaries from latent political involvement.
Nonetheless, Morales' decision to relieve several military commanders of their posts indicates he was not willing to dismiss the coup threat entirely. He likely removed commanders suspected of being contacted by lowland agitators -- regardless of the commanders' responses -- and replaced them with people he either knew he could trust or who had not been in positions likely to be compromised. The move also serves to warn anyone else in the military who might be tempted to fraternize with lowland leaders.
Morales' announcement followed a June 18 statement by authorities from the lowland Media Luna departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, which called for civil resistance against the current Constitutional Assembly proceedings and for the military to fulfill its role to uphold the constitution. The lowland departments, whose populations include a strong landholding group of European descent, seek autonomy from the central government in the new draft constitution, while Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party looks likely to push through a new political division of the lowlands, privileging indigenous groups and possibly altering control over natural resources. The lowland regions and main opposition party Podemos are losing faith in the assembly's process and have diverted their energy to protests.
Though this situation is certainly tense, and the Media Luna statement could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive call for a coup, the military has issued no statements suggesting any support for such a move.
The Media Luna leaders likely were emboldened by a statement from Bolivia's armed forces June 15 that the military would not accept the language in a proposal drawn up by one of the assembly's committees, which would revoke the military's role in upholding domestic peace and turn it over exclusively to police. In fact, the committee in question had been stacked, with five of its eight members associated with the police force. This issue represents a feud between Bolivia's military and police forces, but it is far from being a step toward martial law; the military did not threaten any specific aggressive actions. Morales issued a statement assuring the draft article would be overturned, and the military said it is content to see its concerns addressed within the assembly's procedures.
Also June 15, the military issued a statement saying it will not negotiate over its duty to uphold the nation's territorial integrity, its duty to uphold the constitution or mandatory conscription (points that Morales will not challenge). In the same statement, the military said the point on territorial integrity includes potential threats from within the country, not merely threats from outside. This could be a veiled threat -- not toward Morales, but rather toward the lowland regions seeking autonomy.
The commander of the armed forces, Gen. Wilfredo Vargas, said the military will not permit the fracture of the state. However, he said, it will accept new internal divisions, such as new departments and provinces, if those are agreed upon by the Constitutional Assembly.
The Bolivian armed forces will remain loyal to Morales, both because the military has a good relationship with the president and because it is aware that a coup cannot succeed if most of the country will actively combat it. If protests grow increasingly violent, the military could step in -- but it will likely do so under Morales' command, to enforce his orders.
Bolivia: No Military Coup in the Works