Venezuela’s Crisis, Explained by an Expert on Coups

Venezuelan military leaders reiterated their allegiance to President Maduro in a recent newsconference.

Venezuelan military leaders reiterated their allegiance to President Maduro in a recent newsconference. Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

The worse Venezuela’s crisis has grown — street protests, crackdowns, calls for President Nicolás Maduro to step down, and now an opposition leader who claims he is rightfully the country’s interim leader — the more uncertain we’ve become about what’s likely to happen next.
So we turned to Naunihal Singh, an expert on coups who teaches at the United States Naval War College. But his research is on much more than just the moment at which a military or opposition figure seizes power. It’s about how and when governments hold on to power, how officers and political elites organize to force change, what role protesters and foreign governments can play, and how legitimacy — if there really even is such a thing — gets conferred.
“It’s just perplexing,” Professor Singh said, which is not what you want to hear from a leading expert in a moment of catastrophe.
“What I keep coming back to is that it shouldn’t be in anybody’s interests for the country to get destabilized to this extent and for this many people to starve,” he added. (He asked that we state that his views are his own and not his employer’s.)
Crises like Venezuela’s usually get resolved when some set of powerful actors — military leaders, political elites, business elites, foreign governments — come together to force a change in who runs the country.
That change can be peaceful or violent. It can be done with the leader’s consent (as when Myanmar’s military acquiesced to some loss of control in 2012) or without the leader’s consent (like Egypt in 2011 or Zimbabwe in 2017).
Venezuela’s puzzle is that this hasn’t happened, though Mr. Maduro is a relatively weak leader and all of the major domestic and international actors have been made worse off by his rule.
We had a long and interesting conversation with Professor Singh that we’ll tell you more about soon. For now, with his permission, we’re going to reproduce a series of tweets he sent laying out how to watch the news from Venezuela like an expert. We’ve condensed and clarified in places. Think of this as taking Coups 101.
Here are Professor Singh’s tweets, marked off in italics:
What happened in Venezuela is not yet a military coup. I think it is clear that the opposition and its supporters would like a transfer of power via a soft coup, a non-violent withdrawal of military support for the ruling party. But that hasn't happened yet and may not.
My book, “Seizing Power,” is focused on what happens during a coup attempt once it starts, and that hasn't happened. My remarks here are based on a broader understanding of coup conspiracies and deterrence.
So who might be likely to mount a coup in Venezuela and what would it take for them to succeed? I think the opposition would most prefer to see the Zimbabwe option, where the top brass of the military switch allegiance. [Military leaders in Zimbabwe bloodlessly pushed out President Robert Mugabe in 2017, allowing a civilian to take his place.]
When this happens in conjunction with popular mobilization, as in Tahrir Square in Egypt, it gives a lot of legitimacy to the incoming administration and makes it seem that the military has "bowed to the will of the people."
However, the senior ranks in Venezuela do not yet appear to be willing to discard Maduro. All reports indicate that they are well compensated, and they may not trust Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself the interim leader, to give them as good a deal. They may also be ideologically attached to Maduro.
Where Venezuela differs from Zimbabwe is that Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power after Mugabe, was a regime insider and so the top brass could force Mugabe to retire while still claiming they supported ZANU-PF, the ruling party. Supporting Guaidó would be a bigger ideological step.
That said, I'm not sure how thick the Bolivarian ideology [which binds Venezuela’s ruling class] is at this point. I doubt it would hold the generals in place if they stopped making money. I suspect Guaidó is trying to offer them a better deal, but his offers may not be credible.
Another difference between Zimbabwe and Venezuela is that in Zimbabwe, the major external regime supporter, China, appears to have approved of the change in government. In Venezuela, Russia and Cuba and China are all against regime change.
The middle and lower tiers of the military are much worse off, and therefore have greater incentives to organize. Apparently there are small scale mutinies and defections happening at the bottom of the military, but these have not yet spread.
I take the possibility of a wildcat mutiny, one not organized but spontaneous and spreading across the country very seriously. People are hungry. The massive refugee exodus has operated as a release valve to a certain extent but the situation remains very bad.
If I am Maduro, right now I am talking to the Russians and the Chinese, trying to get food to low ranking soldiers, just enough to make them believe they are better off inside the military supporting the government. I find it very hard to predict when and how mass mutinies will happen, others may have a better grasp on this (Maggie Dwyer at the University of Edinburgh, for example). But this is in my mind the largest threat, but also the hardest to predict.
Why hasn't there been a coup attempt from the middle yet? My guess is that this is where the Cubans come in as counterintellegence and as a possible coup counterforce. I have no direct knowledge, though, I am going off the remarks of others that suggest such a thing.
Some of the speculation in this story, if accurate, would suggest that midlevel and senior members of the military are too afraid to organize an effective coup plot, and the opposition is hoping merely to keep them on the fence and use street protests instead.
If military actors refuse to suppress popular demonstrations, and this leads to Maduro's removal, it will still be a coup, but one that requires no extensive plotting and that leaves the incoming government looking respectable.
But it's also a fairly weak hand to play. It accepts the fact that few within the military are both interested in making a coup and believe they can succeed in a coup attempt. It also relies on increasing civilian protest and Maduro's use of the military to suppress protest.
I suspect Maduro has enough ability to buy off some military actors at the top and deter those in the middle that he can ride out the opposition challenge for now.
I think the biggest risk to Maduro is a mutiny that gets intertwined with a civilian uprising and produces a revolution, but this is still a low probability outcome. Revolutions are rare, especially when the incumbent has strong foreign support.
In short I am having trouble understanding how this horrible humanitarian catastrophe ends, but I do not think a Guaidó takeover is very likely.
We were struck that Professor Singh considered it possible (if unlikely) that a mutiny could lead to outright revolution, so we asked him what case seemed comparable. He cited Russia’s 1917 revolution.
“Imagine it as a revolution bubbling up among both enlisted/conscripted military and civilians,” he told us. “Civilians would go on strike, soldiers would demand to get paid or perhaps grab their officers and beat them up. It's basically a violent military labor action until it gains steam.”
But when we asked him for a case that seems most similar to where Venezuela is right now, he pointed to something far less dramatic: Kenya’s 2017 political crisis.
In brief: Kenya’s president won reelection. The supreme court nullified the results over voting irregularities. The incumbent was inaugurated anyway. Then the opposition leader declared himself president. It was resolved when the president and opposition leader came to some sort of understanding that was generally acceptable to their constituencies among the voters and political elites.
There’s a pretty big range between Kenya 2017 and Russia 1917, which just illustrates how uncertain Venezuela’s crisis has become and how much room the country’s stakeholders still have to pull things together or drive their country into even deeper disaster.
Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.
On our minds: How will things end in Venezuela?