The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has led many commentators to speculate about what may happen to President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Some say the Maduro government could usher in a dictatorial regime and entirely outlaw the opposition. Others continue to assert the democratic credentials of the country’s government. Others still contend that a military coup d’état might lead to democratic change.
Although many possibilities remain open, a military coup seems unlikely. If it should somehow happen, it will probably damage democracy further rather than open up new opportunities.
Venezuela is suffering through a crisis — but it isn’t the first time
Although the government does not acknowledge how bad things are, Venezuela is in dire straits. Its currency is undergoing hyperinflation — it lost 10 percent of its value on Nov. 17 alone. Crime is soaring, many citizens have little access to medicine, and poor citizens rely upon government-delivered foodstuffs to survive.
Many researchers rightly say that Venezuela’s problems have more to do with oil dependence than the innate problems of socialism. The Venezuelan economy has suffered for decades because of its dependence on oil exports. For example, in 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez enacted harsh fiscal changes that were demanded by the International Monetary Fund after a global fall in oil prices and unsuccessful attempts to diversify the Venezuelan economy. As a result, Venezuelans who relied upon public transport rioted and the military responded with violence, killing hundreds of citizens.
Venezuela also has a long history of government corruption that predates the Maduro government. Pérez, for instance, was charged with corruption, removed from office and sentenced to two years in prison in the mid-1990s. Even so, current government bureaucrats appear to have skimmed money from lucrative energy deals and gotten kickbacks for government contracts. High-ranking members of the military sell basic goods on the black market and perhaps even traffic drugs.
The government is weak — but so is the opposition
The crisis has led to plummeting favorability ratings for Maduro. The Venezuelan opposition, however, also remains unpopular. It made serious gains during legislative elections in 2015 but suffered a resounding defeat during recent elections for state governors in October.
Scholars disagree about how fair Venezuelan elections are. Some say that the government has tampered with electoral results, but others find little evidence to back that up. All agree that the government has deployed several tactics to enhance their odds at the polls — from using government funds for their campaigns to abusing their ability to broadcast their political rallies on public television.
The question is: What happens next?
Those who fear that Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship ask what can be done to stop it. Some question whether the opposition should continue to participate in elections and suggest that the opposition appeal to international institutions for some sort of intervention. Others, at the extreme, hint that the government should be ousted by force, perhaps by Venezuela’s military.
In a recent Monkey Cage article, Ozan Varol claims that if the military did intervene, it might usher in a democratic transition. He says that only “if the military breaks can the river of democracy jump the banks.” Military intervention in Venezuela, however, seems improbable and, if it happened, would most likely lead to increased authoritarianism within the country.
Historically, Venezuela has suffered under military rule
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Venezuela was ruled by military strongmen. It was not until 1958 that Venezuelans finally got rid of military rule. Venezuela is now Latin America’s longest-running democracy after Costa Rica.
In Latin America, more generally, citizens suffered terribly under U.S.-supported military regimes, which openly tortured, assassinated and “disappeared” countless numbers of citizens. This included the regime that came to power after a coup in Guatemala, which displaced the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz.
In April 2002 in Venezuela, a military coup temporarily deposed Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Democracy hardly flourished during the period of Chávez’s ouster. The transitional government enacted measures through unconstitutional and undemocratic means. It was led by Pedro Carmona, the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, who removed dissident military officers, scrapped the constitution, suspended the National Assembly and dissolved the Supreme Court with the support of anti-Chávez military personnel.
If history is any guide, any coup in Venezuela is unlikely to lead to a democratic transition.
A coup is unlikely, anyway
In any event, there is no evidence that an uprising within the Venezuelan military is likely. Many people in the military have too much skin in the game. As the United States and other countries have implicated Venezuelan military leaders in human rights violations, they and their subordinates recognize that prosecution would become more likely under an opposition government.
What is more, Venezuelan military leaders are clearly benefiting from Maduro government policies. They control the logistics of food distribution, the import and export of additional products. More than any other group, they will gain if the Maduro government continues to hold power. In late November 2017, Maduro also appointed Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo as head of the national oil industry, effectively ceding control over the country’s most coveted resource to the military.
Lower-level officers may come from poor neighborhoods and see the consequences of the crisis first hand, but they still have a lot of access to food and other benefits. Because the opposition lacks any serious solution to the economic crisis, military figures — both senior and junior — are more inclined to stick with the government.
Maduro, like his predecessor, surely recognizes that he must keep the military satisfied. As a result, he has militarized his administration, appointing an unprecedented number of former military leaders to cabinet positions. If the Venezuelan opposition were to offer military leaders an exit option, then perhaps they might encourage more open defiance of the government. Under current circumstances, however, the odds seem slim.
Timothy M. Gill is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His research examines U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela, particularly U.S. democracy assistance programs in Venezuela during the Chávez years. Find him on Twitter (@timgill924).