A protester walks in front of a burning bus in Caracas, Venezuela

Maduro’s opponents have gravely miscalculated how to handle the Venezuela crisis

Republished courtesy of The Telegraph

When is a coup not a coup? If Tuesday’s events in Caracas are anything to go by, it can be a mere few hours after it starts.

From an airbase in the heart of the city and flanked by heavily armed soldiers, “interim” president Juan Guaidó and his political mentor Leopoldo López called for members of Venezuela’s armed forces to mobilise and end the rule of Nicolás Maduro. It would be hard to create a more coup-like atmosphere if you tried.

Yet as wider military backing failed to materialise, Guaidó and his backers in the US began to restyle this as just another public demonstration of the real and rising popular discontent in Venezuela.

But this being their third unheeded call for major military defections in three months, their efforts might be better spent analysing their own significant role in these failures.

The first thing they must understand is the nature of the Venezuelan military. In terms of ideology, they are specifically the Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela, after the Caracas-born military leader who liberated much of Latin America, Simón Bolivar. Not only is he the unrivalled national hero, he was also a staunch anti-imperialist, and the closest thing to an empire in recent Latin American history has been the United States.

This historic Bolivarianism was also ratcheted up several notches by Hugo Chávez, whose path to the Venezuelan presidency involved 16 years fomenting this doctrine within the army even before he was elected, let alone after. Defecting to an opposition openly in cahoots with the US would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Rather than palliate the problem, Trump has fallen back on arch hawks living in a Cold War time warp. National Security Adviser John Bolton has claimed the Monroe Doctrine, giving the US the right to intervene in its Latin American “backyard”, is alive and well, as well as openly admitting that US interest in Venezuela is about oil.

Meanwhile, the Special Envoy for Venezuela is one Elliott Abrams, notorious in Latin America for attempting to whitewash horrendous atrocities in Central America under Reagan. Again, falling in with this crowd goes against everything the Venezuelan armed forces have been taught in recent decades.

Of course, in the military as in the wider Venezuelan state, ideology took a backseat to interest quite some time ago. Yet even here Guaidó and his US allies have misunderstood and misjudged their impact.

Crucially, the civil-military alliance developed by Chávez gave the military an important role in the economy, particularly once he lost faith in other branches of the state. Many of the top brass repaid his faith by using their control over borders and their access to foreign exchange to engage in massively profitable illicit activities like currency arbitrage, smuggling of subsidised oil and food, and even drug trafficking.

The security forces are also the strong arm of the state: when violent repression is invoked, they are inevitably involved.

The US response has been to place sanctions on the generals involved, which has only served to tie their destinies to that of Maduro. If his government falls, they could face extradition to the US or prosecution at home.

Conversely, this does mean that Guaidó and the Trump administration can offer the carrot of immunity from prosecution, but in practice assurances have been vague and messages contradictory. John Bolton has suggested we may yet see Maduro in Guantánamo, whereas key middleman Senator Marco Rubio has hinted at a Gaddafi-style lynching. Sanctioned general Hugo Carvajal, an open supporter of Guaidó, was recently arrested in Spain on a US warrant. If you were a Venezuelan general, would you be rushing towards any of these outcomes?

And then there is the nature of the Guaidó opposition itself. Though now seen simply as “the opposition” abroad, it is just one faction within a far broader movement, and quite an extreme one at that. Guaidó may come with relatively little baggage, but those behind him – Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma – represent the “by any means necessary” brigade, even if the means is an anti-democratic coup (against Chávez in 2002) or the deeply problematic US-backed intervention outlined above.

In Venezuela’s deeply polarised context, this faction and a highly politicised military could not have been further apart. Falling on the mercy of your sworn enemy is a last-ditch strategy at best, which is why key military figures appear content to sit out the crisis in their current ditch.

Of late, there have been growing calls for a more nuanced and inclusive solution to Venezuela’s crisis, involving a far wider range of political actors and potentially a special institutional status for the military during a transitional power-sharing period.

Aside from avoiding the real possibility of an uncontrollable spiral of violence, the failure of yesterday’s uprising attempt could yet bring a second benefit. Guaidó and his US backers might finally face up to the fact that only a political solution, however difficult, can bring an end to Venezuela’s never-ending crisis.

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