In the weeks since the firing of Bolivian interior minister Luis Arce Gomez, Bolivia has begun quaking again with rumors of coup and countercoup, according to reports from La Paz.
Col. Arce was believed to be an orchestrator of the violent repression reported in the Andean nation since Gen. Luis Garcia Meza took power in a coup last July. It was Arce's alleged links to the cocaine trade that helped provoke the United States into ending drug-control aid to Bolivia and declaring that the makeup of the government rendered effective use of such aid unlikely. Few other governments beyond those of military neighbors to the south have resumed normal ties with Bolivia.
Garcia Meza has been vigorously trying to counter that image, ordering what are officially described as crackdowns on traffickers. On Feb. 26, in an apparent last-ditch effort to obtain formal diplomatic recognition from Washington, he fired Arce and five other Cabinet members, one of whom was implicated along with Arce in a recent CBS-TV "60 Minutes" show as being involved in the drug trade.
After Arce was fired from the Interior Ministry he was made commandant of the Army Academy in La Paz. Last Tuesday, cadets at the school rose in rebellion, briefly holding him prisoner, but were put down by troops loyal to the colonel.
[United Press International reported from La Paz that the program may have influenced the rebel cadets. Quoting diplomatic sources, UPI said tapes of the show were distributed to members of the Army Academy by opponents of Garcia Meza and Arce, to arouse the cadets against the regime. The program, broadcast in the United States March 1, showed Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) charging that Arce and other top Bolivian officials were directly involved in the yearly $1 billion cocaine trade.]
Arce's main source or power is said to be a paramilitary force of several hundred that helped pull off Garcia Meza's coup last July.
Vying with Arce, according to the most persistent imminent-coup rumors, is Col. Alberto Natusch Busch, the leader of a November 1979 coup attempt that left at least 300 dead in La Paz alone before Natusch was defeated.
Natusch is said to have the initial support both of certain key troop commanders and of a former general and president, Hugo Banzer Suarez. Banzer recently visited the United States and his followers in La Paz generated considerable publicity about his contacts there.
Banzer ruled for seven years after seizing power in 1971, a modern record of longevity in turbulent Bolivia, then stepped down after the first in a series of disputed elections. The Carter administration had fostered the elections as part of efforts to encourage democratic rule in the military-dominated southern reaches of South America.
Given the broad dismay with the current government, say advocates of a Natusch-Banzer coup, the United States might welcome a return of the stability that Banzer imposed. In any case, it is widely agreed that something must be done for the economy, which is chronically weak and now unusually battered.
Natusch was dragged from his home and briefly detained at 1 a.m. on March 6, reportedly by paramilitaries acting under orders from the then-deposed Arce.
Garcia Meza then called on Air Force Commander Waldo Bernal to declare that the armed forces "work together and we recognize the authority" of the president. Bernal has himself been mentioned as a possible replacement of Garcia Meza.
In addition to the rumblings of military conspiracy, internal civilian pressures are mounting against the increasingly unsteady government. The Catholic Church has condemned the government openly for using physical and psychological torture and has called for an official explanation of the Jan. 15 murder of eight young leftists who were shot by government security agents during a clandestine meeting in La Paz.
The leftists' relatives, including a former defense minister and general, Hugo Suarez Guzman, have also been clamoring for some response to the murders. In a recent issue of the Catholic-owned newspaper Presencia, Suarez signed a plea for investigation of the deaths.