Why it’s so hard to tell if we are seeing a coup in Venezuela

Is this what a coup looks like?
Is this what a coup looks like?
Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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Thousands of Venezuelans clashed with government forces today at a Caracas airbase after opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for an uprising to topple president Nicolás Maduro.

International media and the Maduro government are calling Guaidó’s call to action an attempted coup. Guaidó supporters inside and outside the country are rejecting the term.

“This is not a military coup,” Calros Vecchio, the Guaidó interim government’s ambassador to the US, said at a press conference. “This is a constitutional crisis, led by the Venezuelan people.”

US national security adviser John Bolton said he saw Guaidó’s declaration as no different from a US president giving orders to the military as commander in chief.

Guaidó’ declared himself interim president in January, claiming—with US backing—that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was not constitutional.

“This is clearly not a coup. We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela” he told reporters.

Which is it? The answer is not clear-cut.

The many meanings of “coup”

Coup d’état literally means “blow of state” in its original French. The dictionary definition of the term is straightforward: “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group,” according to Merriam Webster.

The definition gets fuzzier when you ask political scientists. Some believe that a coup has to involve the military, others say it has to be a conspiracy planned in secret. The common element is that the power grab has to be unlawful, that is, not according to constitutional rules. (So far, the military has stood by Maduro.)

This is one of the broadest definitions, compiled by the Coup d’Etat Project at the University of Illinois’s Cline Center.

We define a coup d’état as the sudden and irregular (i.e., illegal or extra-legal) removal, or displacement, of the executive authority of an independent government. Thus, we include as coups situations in which the initiators leave the incumbent chief executive in a titular position but impose a higher authority (e.g., a military junta or dictator) that is the de facto executive power.

Under those definitions, the outcome of the coup—whether it leads to democracy or dictatorship, for example—is irrelevant. “The ‘coup’ designation refers to how the executive left office, rather than what happens afterwards,” says Erica De Bruin, a Hamilton College professor who has researched how to prevent coups.

The common usage of  “coup”

Outside of political-science circles, though, coup d’état has a decidedly undemocratic connotation. It’s generally associated with a violent toppling of a government, as in the 1973 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, or the one that set up Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship in Uganda in 1971.

It’s that meaning of coup d’état that Guaidó’s supporters appear to be contesting. They have long argued that Maduro’s government is not legitimate and doesn’t represent the Venezuelan people.

And how about “auto coups”?

It’s not that different from what Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez argued back in 1992, when he launched his own coup. (Venezuela, by the way, has a long history of coups.) Chávez failed but then was democratically elected in 1998. His party has been in power since. It has employed a variety of questionable tactics to maintain its grip, including jailing opposition leaders. Maduro’s re-election last year was widely considered a sham, and so was another vote the previous year to elect a constitutional assembly.

Which brings us to another type of coup. The creation of the new body could or could not be viewed as an “auto coup”, depending on who you ask. This type of coup refers to one branch of government illegitimately snatching power from another, which is what the opposition—and some international observers—say was Maduro’s purpose.

Maduro, however, engineered the move invoking the Venezuelan constitution, which renders the question of illegitimacy murkier, for the purpose of determining whether it was a coup or not.

“This is actually a pretty difficult line-drawing exercise,” says Dan Shalmon of the Cline Center, of cataloging coups.

Democratic coup

What is unquestionable is the dismal state of Venezuelan democracy.  The Maduro government has been using its power to bribe and repress citizens in its quest to hold on to power. On Tuesday, soldiers fired tear gas against protestors, and several armored vehicles drove straight into a crowd, injuring at least two people.

The situation seems not unlike other coup-prone places, the bulk of which are undemocratic to start with, according to Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell. The two political scientists have looked at coups’ potential to promote democracy, not quash it. Their conclusion, published in a 2014 study published in the academic journal Foreign Policy Analysis, is that a coup might be the most likely way to dislodge an autocratic leader who refuses to budge:

When coups challenge authoritarian regimes, policymakers should view the actions as windows of opportunities to foster democratization. This does not mean that coups against authoritarian regimes should necessarily be fomented or celebrated—the long history of increased repression following coups would make such a conclusion reckless. Instead, both failed and successful coup attempts should be viewed as opportunities to urge leaders to make meaningful democratic reforms—reforms that would be quite unlikely in the absence of coup attempts.

So, is Venezuela seeing a coup?

De Bruin would say yes, if only an attempted one, at this point. “It is the threat or use of force that distinguishes coups from voluntary resignations and other peaceful transfers of power,” she says. Guaidó, after all, made his announcement flanked by what appeared to be troops.

Under the Cline Center’s criteria, probably not. Aside from the threat, there hasn’t been any real action taken to unseat Maduro.

A coup or not, the uprising is the biggest challenge to Maduro so far. The biggest question: How likely is it to be successful?