Venezuela is at Risk of a Coup

By Benjamin Purper, Blogger for Latin American Affairs

On Thursday, Venezuela lost its last vestige of representative democracy when President Nicolas Maduro, aligned with the country’s supreme court magistrates, suspended the Venezuelan National Assembly [1]. In a move derided by the international community, Maduro and the magistrates removed the opposition party from power and effectively completed Venezuela’s transformation into a one-party state. These developments, coupled with an economic and humanitarian crisis, make a military-backed coup d’etat against Maduro’s government a very real possibility.

Eighteen years after embarking on Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela is in crisis. After falling oil prices collapsed the country’s economy in 2014, a humanitarian crisis has been slowly brewing, leading mass numbers of Venezuelans to cross the border into neighboring Colombia. As National Public Radio reported [2] last May, “Venezuela is in freefall. There's no food, medicine or power. The president is accusing the U.S. of instigating the shortages through what he claims is economic sabotage.” Since then, the situation has only deteriorated, as President Maduro has responded by undermining democratic institutions and committing widespread human rights violations against political opposition. His suspension of the National Assembly is the latest, and most troubling, development in Venezuela’s slow march towards autocracy that began under Hugo Chavez.

Although the long history of coups and military dictatorships in Latin America would be enough to predict a Venezuelan coup, there is one recent historical event that makes it seem especially likely. In 2009, Latin America experienced its first successful coup d’etat since military dictatorships ruled the continent in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The 2009 coup, which overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, was especially troubling because it disrupted the consolidation of democracy that the region had seemingly achieved in the 1990’s. Honduran elites, troubled at Zelaya’s embrace of Hugo Chavez-style democratic socialism, presented the coup as a defense of democracy rather an attack on it. Amidst widespread international pressure, the main factor that allowed the coup government to remain in power was U.S. recognition of post-coup elections, which effectively legitimized the government and prevented the ousted president’s return to office.

What does a coup in Honduras have to do with a hypothetical coup in Venezuela? Tegucigalpa’s coup provides a roadmap for its Latin American neighbor. Just like in Honduras, conservative factions of the Venezuelan government (who Maduro just removed from power [3], probably for this very reason) could ally themselves with the military to remove Maduro from office. Although this would violate the democratic charter of the Organization of American States, Venezuela is already sufficiently isolated, rendering further quarantine a minor and a acceptable consequence for a coup government. Furthermore, although the Trump Administration has been unclear on its policy towards Venezuela or Latin America beyond Mexico, a coup government in Venezuela could safely assume President Trump’s support of anoverthrow of a democratic socialist like Maduro, as President George W. Bush did in 2002 when he supported an attempted coup against Hugo Chavez himself.  

However, a coup in Venezuela is by no means inevitable; there are several steps that the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere countries can take to prevent this overthrow.

Venezuela expert and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America [4], David Smilde, claimed that multilateral efforts in the hemisphere could prevent a Venezuelan coup in an opinion piece in the New York Times [5] He specifically cites efforts from Mercosur and Unasur, South America’s trading and security blocs, to isolate Venezuela from those groups as positive examples of multilateral pressure exerted on Venezuela.

However, Smilde is less optimistic about the U.S. role in preventing such a coup, pointing out that the Trump Administration is almost explicitly opposed to multilateral efforts. He writes: “The risk is that United States policy toward Venezuela will rely on unilateral sanctions, which, by definition, require no diplomacy… [These types of sanctions] strike a dissonant chord in a region with a longstanding aversion to intervention and make it more difficult for hemispheric neighbors to make progress on Venezuela.” The example of the Honduras coup reinforces this opinion; if President Obama, who was much more openly supportive of multilateralism and democracy promotion than President Trump is, still chose to recognize an illegitimate coup government in Honduras, what can the region expect the U.S. will do in Venezuela?

Ultimately, a coup in Venezuela is not inevitable. The humanitarian and political crisis there may eventually resolve itself without a drastic change in government, especially if the rest of Latin America – with or without the U.S. participation– can prevent a coup and help Venezuela rebuild its democratic institutions. However, the possibility of a coup both occurring and succeeding is very real, and decision-makers must not treat it lightly. The situation in Honduras in 2009 represented a failure of the inter-American system to protect democracy and guard against coups d’etat, but the hemisphere has another chance to make the system work in Venezuela.  

Benjamin Purper is a senior at the University of Redlands, where he studies International Relations and Instrumental Performance.