Venezuela experienced the greatest moment of tension during the biggest political crisis that the country has gone through in recent years, perhaps the most difficult moment for Chavism. In the oil rich South American country there are two governments, both with their strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, the ruling government of Nicolas Maduro who won an election in 2018, characterized by a boycott of the opposition and where abstentionism was the winner; on the other one, the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself Interim President of the country in the absence of a legitimate president, on January 23, 2019.
Maduro has the military power on his side, the recognition of some world powers such as Russia and China, the control of political and economic power, however he lacks popular support. Juan Guaido has greater international support, the support of a sector of the population fed up with many crises but lacks military support and real political capacity to decide (Nicolas Maduro reduced the powers of the National Assembly which is mostly in hands of the opposition).
The fiercest struggle between both factions had been carried out more in the international scope, especially in the recognition of both governments and their members in organizations, such as the OAS (Organization of American States).
The Coup d’Etat
On April 30th, the self-proclaimed president, Juan Guaido, called for an uprising against President Nicolas Maduro, which he called “Operación Libertad”, (Freedom Operation), calling on civil society to mobilize, but especially, appealing to the military sector to leave Maduro and join his movement. Thousands of protesters took the streets to protest and then they were confronted with the armed forces.
In another symbolic fact, Leopoldo López, who in a certain way is the face of the opposition, was released from his house arrest. This action was important not only for the liberation of the most important political prisoner but also because it represents a rupture between the Maduro’s government and certain groups in the military sector, those who liberated Leopoldo and who supported the coup attempt.
Despite organized civil mobilization, the struggle in the streets with the armed forces and getting the support of certain military groups, “Operación Libertad”, was a complete failure and it ended as fast as it started. Maduro remained intact, and the opponents and military who took part, had to run away.
What went wrong?
The attempted coup did not go as expected, and both Leopoldo Lopez and the military that took part in “Operación Libertad” ended up asking for asylum in different embassies. The main reason of the failure was the lack of support from the military forces. While at least 40 soldiers took part in the uprising, this was not enough. For the coup to be successful, it was necessary to involve a greater number of soldiers, especially the higher ranked or those closest to Nicolas Maduro.
It was speculated that high ranks of the armed forces knew of the uprising beforehand, and had already negotiated with the opposition and the United States their participation in the transition of power, just like with Manuel Christopher Figuera, the intelligence chief of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), who released Leopoldo López.
However, despite what the United States and Guaido expected, whether because of fear of reprisals or failed negotiations, the armed forces, especially those with guns control, remained faithful to Nicolas Maduro, causing the impossibility of any kind of uprising.
The release of Leopoldo López, after five years imprisoned, attempted to symbolize the union of the opposition, which has been criticized for being divided. It was expected that with his appearance in the streets, the movement would have been stronger, since Juan Guaido alone, does not have the popularity to be the face of the opposition. However, his appearance not only did not have the expected effect (summoning more people), but among the many theories that explain why the coup failed, I believe that his liberation had the opposite effect.
Another idea that has gained some traction is that his release resulted from a unilateral decision by Leopoldo Lopez himself, on which Juan Guaido gave in, but who was not part of the negotiations. I believe that this caused the breakdown of negotiations for the power transition between The United States, the opposition, and the group close to Maduro, since the latter do not look kindly on the opponent and was never part of any agreement. [efn_note]BBC News (2019), “Crisis en Venezuela: 5 escenarios posibles para salir del conflicto político”, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-48129528, consulted on May the 5th, 2019.[/efn_note]
Regarding the negotiations, another theory is that Juan Guaido, finding himself threatened with being arrested (since his immunity from prosecution was withdrawn), sped up the plans to advance the coup d’état, an action that could be the main reason why Maduro´s inner circle did not take part as planned.
What could we expect?
After the failed coup d’état, I propose three different scenarios for the future of Venezuela:
1. A mutual agreement
The first and optimistic possibility is that both parties have realized their strengths and weaknesses and the only way left for them is the negotiation of a free election. Before the attempted coup d’état, Maduro had proposed a dialogue with the mediation of the Vatican, Uruguay or Mexico, while the opposition and his international allies called for new elections.
On the one hand, the opposition must realize that having greater international support especially from the United States, is not enough when there is no real political power within the country and its ability to maneuver is very limited. Seizing power by force is not a possibility when it is precisely the military sector who controls that power, at least not without long, prior negotiations. The opposition may have had a greater impact on the 2018 elections, but they preferred to sabotage it.
As for the official government, they have to realize that the discontent over the economic crisis that the country suffers, is already reaching even the military sectors and the most attached to the regime, a condition that undermines loyalties towards Maduro. Unlike the negotiations in previous years, Maduro’s government would stand weakened in new negotiations by an economic crisis, constant blackouts, a migratory crisis, an increasingly discontented population, and an international environment increasingly hostile to his government.
2. A Self-Coup
Another way would be a new coup d’état. However, this time it would not be promoted by the opposition or financed by the United States, but by Chavism’s own leadership. As we have already seen it, there is a general discontent over a crisis that even affects the military sector, which has gradually led to its fragmentation. In the failed coup of April 30th, although the military mostly remained loyal to Maduro, there are groups willing to betray the regime, especially if we believe the US versions that show that high command were negotiating the departure of the President. Previously, military groups and the National Guard, had revolted against President Nicolas Maduro, as with the group led by Juan Caguarpiano in 2017.
When taking into account this crisis, and this growing division inside Chavism, it is not surprising that internal groups try to overthrow Maduro and take over the country. From the beginning, although Maduro was the successor chosen by Hugo Chávez himself, to represent a civilian left, he is not a career soldier like the rest of Chavism’s leaders.
For many, the natural successor should have been Diosdado Cabello, number two of Chavism and president of the National Constituent Assembly, whose ambitions have been overshadowed by Nicolas Maduro more than once. He could just be the natural successor of Chavism in case Maduro was removed from power. Several Chavist figures seek to create a movement without Nicolas Maduro. Rafael Ramirez, former Minister of Hugo Chávez, declared that: “If Comandante Chávez were alive, he would undoubtedly give Maduro a coup. It would trigger a rebellion; it would move the entire people and the armed forces. […] Maduro’s departure is a matter of time, it is untenable. It is a matter of what our Armed Forces do.”
3. A more powerful Chavism
A third scenario is that the failed coup attempt of April 30, had the opposite effect and not only did they not overthrow Nicolas Maduro, but in the long run, they strengthened Chavism. If there were previous talks between the opposition and chavists to mediate the situation, after the attempted overthrow by force, negotiations are ruled out.
The opposition was exposed by not having the strength to overthrow Maduro. The disgruntled soldiers who supported the uprising, such as the aforementioned Manuel Christopher Figuera, were exposed, exiled and fleeing, and those who did not take part but doubted their loyalty, will also have much to think about.
Chavism has the perfect excuse, under charges of treason, to legitimately persecute and imprison opposition leaders. In the Constituent Assembly (in Venezuela there are two assemblies, the Constituent Assembly (Chavist), and the National Assembly, opposition), Diosdado Cabello announced that they will go after the coup plotters. In that way, Leopoldo López, the face of the opposition, already has another arrest warrant; other opposition leaders have already lost their immunity and are being prosecuted. Edgar Zembrano, Vice President of the National Assembly has already been arrested. The case of Juan Guiado is still uncertain.
The possibility of a new coup d’état from the opposition, in these moments is hopeless. They are weaker and Chavism will be reinforced to prevent further uprisings, including internal ones. It would seem that the only way to remove Nicolas Maduro would be with an invasion by the United States and allies. However, this option is also ruled out, as Russia will not allow it because they do not want to lose in Venezuela their area of influence in the American continent (nor their investments). Also, remember that Russia sent soldiers to Venezuela, which turns an invasion into something much more delicate. Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Larvrov has expressed, in over one occasion, his support for the legitimate government of Nicolas Maduro and has warned of “the serious consequences” that an invasion of Venezuela would bring. China and Russia will protect the South American country in the UN Security Council too.
There is no simple solution to the Venezuelan conflict. The United States is playing all the cards on the table and is evaluating every possibility, but Russia has marked its zone to stand and defend and it is not going to let the Chavist government go down so easily. After the coup, the opposition ended more fragmented, weaker and less maneuverable than ever. Even though the Chavist government remained -for the moment- as the winner of this “conflict”, reality is that it is also weakened. Venezuela suffers from an economic crisis where their currency loses value day by day, there is a shortage of products, constant blackouts, a political crisis with lack of international recognition, fragmentation in their ranks and a social crisis with a huge disconformity of the population.
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- El Financiero (2019), “¿Fracasó la ‘Operación Libertad’ de Guaidó en Venezuela?”, consulted on May the 7th, 2019.
- BBC News (2019), “Venezuela: All you need to know about the crisis in nine charts”, consulted on May the 5th, 2019.
- BBC News (2019), “Crisis en Venezuela: 5 escenarios posibles para salir del conflicto político”, consulted on May the 5th, 2019.
- Vanguardia MX (2019), “¿Podrá el líder Juan Guaidó sacar a Maduro del poder en Venezuela?”, consulted on May the 5th, 2019.
- Yahoo News (2019), “Por qué fracasó el levantamiento de Guaidó y López en Venezuela”, consulted on May the 7th, 2019.
- CNN World (2019), “Venezuela’s uprising”, consulted on May the 8th, 2019.