In what could prove to be an enormous blunder, Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader, launched a failed coup to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro three days ago. The attempted coup ignored how deeply the Venezuelan military elite is tied to the Maduro regime and betrayed the opposition’s inability to anticipate second order effects. If the Venezuelan opposition is serious about returning the country to democracy, then it needs to return to democratic basics: non-violent civil resistance.
On the morning of April 30th, on a military airbase in the middle of Caracas, Guaido called upon the Venezuelan military to defect from Maduro and support his claim to the presidency. At his side was Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition figure freed from house arrest by defecting military guards.
Around noon regime soldiers and policemen clashed violently with pro-Guaido protesters near the airbase. By that evening, Lopez had sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy, defecting soldiers fled to the Brazilian Embassy, and the Maduro government publicly claimed it defeated the coup. No high-level Venezuelan military officials defected.
Despite the dire humanitarian situation in Venezuela – 3 million refugees fled the country, 90 percent of the Venezuela’s 30 million people live below the poverty line and face severe shortages of food, medicine, and electricity – and widespread international support for Guido’s legitimacy, his call for the military to defect was never likely to succeed because the military is invested politically and economically in the success of the regime.
The military in Venezuela remains largely loyal to Maduro, especially the leadership, because of their political and economic importance within the regime. Former-President Chavez implemented a “civil-military alliance” in Venezuela that prioritized the role of the military in the country’s development. This gave military officials important roles in government and policy implementation – from 1999-2013 over 1,600 active or retired military officers worked in public administration.
The military has economic interests that depend upon the regime’s survival. In 2016, the military was allowed to form CAMIMPEG, a services company, to drill and operate oil wells in cooperation with PDVSA, the state oil company, and extract minerals in Venezuela. In 2017, Maduro appointed Major General Manuel Quevedo to run the Oil Ministry and PDVSA. The result? The Venezuelan military gained control of the world’s largest oil reserves and the regime’s main economic asset which is responsible for 90 percent of export revenue.
Thus, when given a choice to defect to Guaido – who would likely try to extricate the military from the economy and return them to the barracks as part of a return to democracy – or support Maduro – who gave them access to Venezuela’s oil and mineral resources in the first place – they supported Maduro.
This should not be surprising. Under Chavez and Guaido, the military was transformed from an independent bureaucracy dedicated to protecting the country and recast as a politicized institution whose future was synonymous with regime survival. Militaries that lack a sense of service to a country as opposed to a regime, where soldiers are promoted based on political loyalty, and where elite commanders thrive on corruption and cronyism are much less likely to support popular protests against a government. In fact, militaries that fit this description are more likely to follow orders and shoot protesters which is what we have seen in Venezuela.
Perhaps Guaido hoped to encourage a wide-spread mutiny in Venezuela’s rank-and-file and render elite support for Maduro meaningless. In countries that are not divided along ethnic or sectarian lines, it is harder for military elites to keep the support of the rank-and-file as they order them to shoot their friends and family. But, the Maduro regime used violence against anti-government protesters before without mass defections and, absent an emotional trigger that would override the ingrained loyalty of the rank-and-file, a mutiny was unlikely to occur.
However, even if Guaido managed to get a significant part of the military to defect – it is unbelievable that all the military would – what would Guaido have done if Maduro refused to resign? Continued with protests while the Maduro regime resorted to violence? Seems unlikely.
Instead, pressure would probably grow for Guaido to use the military forces that defected to him to oust Maduro by force, running the risk of a civil war or a protracted insurgency. This would greatly undermine the likelihood that the Maduro regime falls. Non-violent campaigns are six times more likely to succeed than violent campaigns in the face of repression. It would also exacerbate the suffering in Venezuela.
Perhaps, Guaido would hope that the US would intervene on his behalf if Venezuela devolved into civil war. In that case, he would be three times more likely to remove Maduro than if he had no international support at all. Still, it would be only half as likely to work as a non-violent civil resistance and also compound the humanitarian situation in Venezuela.
The way forward is clear. A coup will not remove Maduro unless Guaido can credibly promise to protect the political and economic prerogatives of the military, an unlikely event. Armed struggle has the potential to work. But, it would require consistent military assistance from the US and violently divide the country while imposing a greater humanitarian cost.
A non-violent civil-resistance campaign is statistically the best option for the opposition. It is also an option grounded in democratic practice and the one likely to generate the largest coalition. Whether Guaido has the ability to implement this strategy, however, is unclear.
Photo by Pixabay, “Africa Map Illustration” (Pixabay), Creative Commons Zero license.
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