Venezuela was convulsed on Tuesday by a … well, it’s not exactly clear what to call it.
An uprising? A coup attempt? As news organizations dissected the semantics, Venezuelans around the world crowded onto Twitter to try to figure out what exactly was going on.
What we know for sure is that early in the morning, a video emerged showing the two highest-profile opposition leaders near a Caracas air force base claiming the final stage of an operation to restore Venezuela’s freedom was underway. From that point on, the day devolved into volleys of online rumor and disinformation, with journalists struggling to confirm even the most basic outlines of the story. As loud explosions and sporadic bursts of gunfire rang out over Caracas at various points in the day, it was impossible to ascertain who was shooting whom. Statements from the White House only deepened the pervasive uncertainty.
What we know for sure is that military defections against the regime appear not to have materialized. Two dozen or so soldiers who had apparently participated in the uprising in the morning were seeking asylum at foreign embassies by nightfall.
With more turmoil expected Wednesday — with opposition leader Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro calling for dueling massive demonstrations — Tuesday’s events underscored the costs of the utter collapse of freedom of speech in Venezuela over the past few years.
While the country is gripped by a pervasive sense of crisis, state television shows propaganda videos on a loop while the remaining “private” broadcasters — under the ownership of Maduro supporters — opted Tuesday for light entertainment: workout shows, astrology, sports. Censors had already taken many foreign, Spanish-language news channels off the air, but on Tuesday they added English-language broadcasters CNN International and BBC World News to the list. Determined to control the narrative, the government instead created a field day for online conspiracy theorists, rumor-mongers and disinformation peddlers.
Nobody really knows what’s going on.
Amid this pervasive (and carefully orchestrated) news vacuum, it’s important to stand back and look at the bigger picture. What do we know for sure?
We know that Venezuela, the country that plays host to the world’s biggest oil reserves, checks more and more boxes for “failed state” designation every day. After an all-encompassing six-year crisis that has demolished more than half its economy, seen it fall into hyperinflation, and sent millions of desperate, hungry people fleeing for refuge in neighboring countries, its ruling clique has mostly given up on providing any sort of public services and devotes virtually all its time, energy and money to its one priority: keeping power.
Yet even that task appears to be beyond its reach: One of the most persistent (but, again, impossible to confirm) rumors Tuesday was that the head of the intelligence agency, SEBIN, had flipped and was now working against Maduro.
We know for sure that as the Venezuelan state grows weaker, the scramble for power in Caracas looks more and more like a proxy war between foreign powers. The opposition is increasingly reliant on the United States, Colombia and Brazil for support, while the regime depends more and more on Cuba, Russia, Iran and Turkey for military, financial and intelligence support.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CNN that Maduro had been ready to flee the country until Russia persuaded him otherwise. Whether that story is true, it points to a deeper truth: The outcome of the Venezuela crisis has more and more to do with what happens in Washington and Moscow, and less and less to do with what happens in Caracas.
We know for sure that discontent in the security forces is profound and papered over by a thin layer of fear for the consequences of revolt. Thousands of Venezuelan soldiers have defected in recent years, most simply walking over the border to Colombia, and thousands more find themselves trapped in a repressive apparatus that doesn’t even pay them enough to feed their families. And we know for sure that, while the vast bulk of Venezuelans are desperate for a change of the regime, the Maduro government has dismantled all democratic means for that majority to make its demands heard.
All of which brings us to the one big thing we know for sure about Venezuela: The country will remain unstable for a very long time.
Even if the regime were to collapse and the opposition to take over, it would need to contend with a baffling proliferation of armed groups: pro-government paramilitaries, Colombian guerrillas, hugely powerful street gangs, Russian soldiers, Cuban spies, holdout army units, etc. And it would need to do so amid a level of economic dislocation that would tax any government’s skill.
The bitter truth is that there will be no magic solutions in Venezuela. Instead, mass disorder and violence of the kind we saw on Tuesday could rapidly become the new normal.