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Venezuela and the Risk of “Democratic” Coup D’états

Venezuela continues to face political and economic turmoil. The Chavista regimes of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro cracked down on the media and political opposition. The economic situation in the country is, if possible, even more dire, with the International Monetary Fund recently suggesting that inflation rates could reach one million percent this year. Despite these challenges, the international community has not uniformly condemned the Maduro regime and, rather than stepping down Maduro recently pushed for a Constituent Assembly as a means of retaining power.

Image courtesy of the Government of Russia (c) 2017

During a speech on August 4, 2018, Maduro survived what appears to have been an assassination attempt using an exploding drone. This assassination attempt does not, however, come as a surprise given the vocal U.S. support for a coup against the Venezuelan strongman. On April 30, Juan Cruz, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs, gave his first public address at the third annual Hemispheric Security Conference at Florida International University in Miami, FL. Amidst his calls for regional efforts to address drug crises in the Americas, combat corruption, and stymie the spread infectious diseases, Cruz outlined the Trump administration’s stance on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Referring to “Mad Man” Maduro as the greatest threat in the Americas, Cruz carefully underlined Articles 134 and 350 of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Constitution that highlight the role of the Venezuelan military as being loyal to the nation and its constitutional duty to disavow regimes that are in opposition to the national constitution. While coming just short of calling on the Venezuelan Military to overthrow the Maduro regime, Cruz called on the military to “Honor [their] oath” to the constitution and stated that, while the administration was not calling for a coup d’état, they would not be opposed to such a measure. In a following panel at the conference, one of George W. Bush’s Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense (DASD) for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Pardo-Maurer, said that it was past time for a coup against the Maduro regime. Conversely, Frank O. Mora, an Obama-era DASD for Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that supporting a coup mistakenly takes the Venezuelan military as an “agent of democratic change.” But what are the prospects of a military coup restoring democracy in Venezuela?

A recent book by Ozan Varol, The Democratic Coup D’État, explores this paradoxical relationship between military coups and democratization. While most look at the military as an undemocratic force, Varol highlights that there have been several occasions where the military has actually played a role in democratic transitions and cites research that 72% of coups in the Post-Cold War era were followed by elections within five years. While many of these were against democratically elected governments, those that were against authoritarian regimes Varol refers to as democratic coup d’états. Varol carefully defines the democratic coup d’état as having three key characteristics:

  1. The military must overthrow an authoritarian government.
  2. After the coup, the military assists in the democratic transition and electoral process.
  3. The military “returns to the barracks” following the election of civilian leaders.

In addition to these three main criteria, it is important to note that Varol clearly states that so-called “hybrid regimes,” or democracies that are severely flawed, do not make legitimate targets for a democratic coup d’état. Given Varol’s research, it is possible for a coup to occur and have a democratizing effect on a country. However, this only occurs in a limited number of occasions and there are often negative consequences when a coup occurs.

But would the Maduro Regime be a legitimate target of Varol’s democratic coup? And if so, would the result be democratizing? Despite Varol’s op-ed to the contrary, based on his own definition of a democratic coup, Venezuela does not meet the criteria for a democratic coup. While the democratic system in Venezuela is deeply flawed to the point of being nearly nonexistent, the regime continues to hold national elections. While the elections are deeply unfair and support the regime’s interests, elections are being held, making Varol’s definition of a democratic coup

The Trump administration needs to be careful about getting what it wishes for. A coup in Venezuela would likely be viewed as illegitimate in the region given the region’s commitment to democratic norms. U.S. rhetoric supporting a coup in the region also echoes past U.S. involvement in the region and provides ammunition for those that view the United States as a neo-imperial player in the Americas. Furthermore, the likelihood of a coup in Venezuela restoring true democratic governance is unlikely. In fact, the Venezuelan military has closer ties with non-democratic governments, such as Russia and China, than they do with the United States. This would suggest that pressure put on the military to restore democracy would be lacking and, possibly push the country further away from democratic governance. Beyond these concerns of the problems evident from a successful coup, failed coup attempts also pose problems for the stability and wellbeing of the already beleaguered Venezuelan populace. One need only look at the concerns over a crackdown by the Maduro regime following the recent assassination attempt to see what could occur if Maduro dealt with a more concerted failed coup attempt.

While there is a definite need for action in addressing the on-going crisis in Venezuela, a military coup would create further problems rather than resolve the crisis. If the Trump administration seeks to restore democracy in Venezuela, it will need to find a way to negotiate a transition with all interested parties. Both the Organization of American States and the Lima Group have taken steps in this direction, but with little impact up to this point. Rather than supporting a coup, the United States should support a negotiated transition, continue to pressure the Maduro regime through sanctions on its supporters, and assist the Venezuelan population as it seeks refuge from the Maduro regime.


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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