The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The odds of a military coup in Venezuela are going up. But coups can sometimes lead to democracy

A man holds the new 100,000-bolivar note, right, to demonstrate its resemblance to the 100 note, in Caracas on Nov. 9. The new bill is worth about $30 on the official market and $2 on the black market. (Federico Parra/AFP)

The news that Venezuela has started defaulting on its debts raises an important question: Can the current regime survive the likely economic fallout? Over the past few years, Venezuela has effectively become an authoritarian country. During his term in office, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has cracked down on dissidents by force and run roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions. Maduro has handpicked cronies to head a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, disabled the opposition-controlled parliament, and made it prohibitively difficult to unseat him.

In such circumstances, as I argue in my new book, “The Democratic Coup d’État”, the domestic military plays a key role in determining whether a country will move to real democracy. Where the military sides with the regime, as large factions of the military did in Syria in 2011, the dictatorship often reigns supreme. But where the military sides with the people, democracy becomes a real possibility. Here’s how that may work out in Venezuela.

The Venezuelan opposition is hopelessly ineffective

In a different world, the political opposition might be able to take advantage of Venezuela’s dire financial situation. Now that the government is actually defaulting, rather than just seeking to delay debt payments, it is going to have a very hard time borrowing more money on international markets. Venezuela has already had a hard time keeping the lights on. Over the near-to-medium term, things are likely to get significantly worse, generating opportunities for political dissenters.

However, the political opposition in Venezuela has been unable to come together to work against the Maduro government. Opposition parties suffered an unexpected electoral loss in the regional elections earlier last month. They remain hopelessly divided, having spent more time and energy fighting each other rather than Maduro’s regime. These fractures within the opposition have provided momentum to Maduro.

Now, the military is a key player

With the opposition paralyzed, the most realistic threat to Maduro is his own military, which, until now, has remained loyal to him.

Maduro is well-aware of the looming threat from his armed forces. Like his predecessor Hugo Chávez, Maduro has engaged in strategic engineering to ensure that his military stays loyal. He has appointed cronies to the military’s top brass (elevating 195 officers to the rank of general in a single day), showered them with substantial privileges, and appointed an “anti-coup” committee to purge officers with questionable allegiances.

These strategies may have reduced the possibility of a military coup, but they have not eliminated it. The benefits doled out by Maduro have mostly gone to the military’s top brass. The mid-level officers and rank-and-file have been marginalized by Maduro and continue to languish along with the rest of Venezuela’s population.

As a result, these soldiers have a significant incentive to reconsider their loyalties. Discontent has already been brewing among the ranks as growing numbers of officers join the uprising against Maduro. Aware of this dynamic, the opposition has been deliberately courting the sympathies of the domestic military, with Julio Borges, the head of the opposition-controlled parliament, asking the armed forces to “break their silence.”

Still, don’t expect change right way

At this point in time, a full-blown coup is unlikely because the current levels of discontent within the military’s ranks don’t appear to be strong enough.  If a small cabal of isolated officers decided to go ahead with a haphazard coup attempt, it might even strengthen the regime. Maduro could emulate the tactics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who utilized a foiled coup attempt against him in July 2016 as an excuse for intensifying his crackdown on the political opposition.

Yet, as Maduro’s stranglehold continues to intensify, disenchantment with the regime could reach a tipping point where a critical mass of military officers decide to abandon ship. If ordered to escalate the use of force on civilian protesters, the armed forces may refuse regime orders and let the revolution take its course or even turn their arms against the very government they’ve been tasked to defend.

Look at what happened in Serbia, Romania, and numerous other countries

In Serbia, the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević collapsed only after his military withdrew its support from his government following persistent street protests. Deprived of military backing, Milošević had no choice but to acknowledge defeat. In Romania, the revolution against the Ceauşescu dictatorship was made possible only by the withdrawal of the military forces tasked with suppressing the rebellion and protecting the regime. Although the military initially sided against the civilian protesters, they were eventually overwhelmed by the tide of discontent and quietly stepped aside to enable the overthrow of the regime in favor of democracy. As I demonstrate in my book, other countries as diverse as Portugal, Mali, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Britain, Guinea-Bissau, Guatemala, Peru and the United States have all undergone democratization after their military forces turned their arms against their authoritarian governments.

A coup against Maduro could lead to a transition away from authoritarianism. However, it might also generate significant side effects. Other cases of transition suggest that Venezuela might struggle for a long time with the reverberations of the inevitable social and political turmoil that a coup would produce. The coup may also beget future coups, particularly in an already coup-prone country like Venezuela.

Vladimir Lenin was no democrat. However, he got one thing right: “No revolution of the masses can triumph without the help of a portion of the armed forces that sustained the old regime.” The Venezuelan military is the levee that’s keeping the democratic movement at bay to protect the Maduro regime. Only if the military breaks can the river of democracy jump the banks.

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School. His new book, The Democratic Coup d’État,” was published by Oxford University Press. You can follow his writing on his website at