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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-07-2024 05:54

Staging a coup

The historical yardstick of coups d’état has been whether they are successful or not with their authenticity seldom coming into question. Except in Latin America, where magic realism has added that word “autogolpe” to its vocabulary.

The historical yardstick of coups d’état has been whether they are successful or not with their authenticity seldom coming into question. Except in Latin America where magic realism has added that word “autogolpe” to its vocabulary. Elsewhere “to stage” is perhaps the verb most commonly used for carrying out a coup without any thought that it might be quite literally staged – theatrical smoke and mirrors.

The concept of “autogolpe” has, of course, returned to recent news as the label slapped by far-right President Javier Milei and Bolivia’s extreme-left three-term ex-president Evo Morales alike on the confused military movements in La Paz on June 26 but it is also the term universally applied to the “fujimorazo” in Peru way back in 1992. Strange that this should be considered a coup by president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) against himself because he vastly expanded executive branch powers by dissolving Congress and reorganising the judiciary from the Supreme Court down, empowering himself for his “Fujishock” pro-market reforms with the justification of ending Sendero Luminoso guerrilla activities and inflation (even if both were already under control with the latter reduced from almost 8,000 percent in 1990 to under 140 percent in 1991).

A decade later (in the same month of April in 2002) there were upheavals in Venezuela removing Hugo Chávez from power for three days which are generally taken seriously as a coup by international as well as Bolivarian media, but upon closer examination it might well be another example of “autogolpe.” On April 11 there was an anti-Chávez demonstration ending in bloodshed with the Puente Llaguno bridge in Caracas as the focus of the violence. As the crowd headed towards Miraflores presidential palace, government sympathisers opened fire on them from rooftops and a total of 19 people were killed (12 of them demonstrators) – the police played a confused role here, some of them firing at the gunmen and some on the demonstrators. It would seem that a horrified Chávez had a panic attack and resigned, creating a power vacuum into which a hapless businessman called Pedro Carmona stepped, but it was presented to the country and the world as a coup by the privileged ousting a populist leader even if the opposition accounted for most of the dead. The Bolivarian masses duly erupted, Carmona’s fragile rule collapsed and Chávez could make a triumphant return from what was defined as a detention by his military comrades.

If there was indeed more to this coup than meets the eye, the question then arises whether the power vacuum arose spontaneously following a shock bloodbath or whether this coup was staged in the literal sense to justify cracking down on the press, the judiciary and institutions at large, as subsequently occurred. 

If the latter, it could well serve as a template for explaining events in Bolivia as a new turn of the screw. In particular, it might be interesting to compare the Bolivian coup (or pseudo-coup) leader Juan José Zúñiga, hitherto far more linked to the coup’s supposed target President Luis Arce than to ex-president Evo Morales denouncing an autogolpe, with the Venezuelan general Lucas Rincón – the man who first announced the exit of Chávez to the world before playing a leading role in his comeback and then becoming his Interior minister the next year. Morales had no evidence for his autogolpe denunciations and proof for something so oblique is always going to be extremely difficult to obtain. Perhaps the best verification lies in the future since it remains to be seen whether the power-grabbing normally motivating this manoeuvre in fact materialises. 

Last weekend Morales was echoed from the opposite end of the political spectrum by the Milei government, which had initially joined the regional condemnation of the coup at the Organisation of American States (OAS) summit in Asunción on the day itself, even if after some hours of hesitation. Milei clearly has no problems taking issue with a ruling party going by the name of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) but it might also be that the globetrotting president is being driven by domestic agenda for once – the Mercosur summit is much too close in time to his much-vaunted relaunch of the ‘May Pact’ in Tucumán on Independence Day next Tuesday, which is his main priority. To be sure, his ongoing slanging-match with his Brazilian colleague Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva already gives him plenty of excuse for his absence from the Mercosur summit but throwing in inflammatory pyrotechnics over Bolivia also helps.

Milei’s insistence on an autogolpe gives rise to suspicions that something similar might be lurking in his mind. There is a Spanish expression “El ladrón juzga por su condición,” which might be translated as “A thief believes everyone else steals” – if it takes a thief to catch a thief, then perhaps it takes a thief to spot a thief too. In the Peruvian Congress which Fujimori dissolved back in 1992, his Cambio 90 party had 14 of the 60 senators and 32 of the 180 deputies, hamstringing the government’s legislation – La Libertad Avanza has even weaker numbers in Congress. Not that any such stunt is around the corner – Fujimori was almost two years in power before binning the Constitution – yet it might well be filed away as a contingency plan just in case the teenage voters now being lined up fail to do the trick.

But the Fujimori experience shows that however absurd it might seem to call such a crass expansion of presidential power an “autogolpe,” in the end it is a blow against oneself.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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