Drew Holland Kinney is a visiting assistant professor of political science at St. John Fisher College.
This week, Venezuela is in crisis as 35-year-old engineer-turned-politician and head of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó stepped up his attempts to oust Nicolás Maduro from power. After declaring himself “interim president” of Venezuela in January and offering “amnesty” to military officials who turned on regime, Guaidó has now embarked on what he calls the “final phase of Operation Liberty,” an attempt to rally with the military to force Maduro out of power.
Though calling the events in Venezuela a coup is contested — the opposition has largely rejected the term, while Maduro’s regime has used it — Guaidó’s courting of the military to intervene in the political process and overthrow a state’s executive leadership is a textbook case of civilian coup advocacy.
Yet encouraging soldiers to seize power violates norms proscribing the military’s entrance into politics and puts politicians and their constituencies at risk of physical harm. So why is Guaidó enabling a military takeover, and how will it end? Coup attempts in the Middle East offer some clues — and warnings.
Guaidó’s attempt to ally with the military and oust Maduro from power is happening in a political context that has produced similar efforts. First, Venezuela is suffering from extreme polarization. To the opposition, a military coup may be better than more repression, hyperinflation, electricity outages, and shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has publicly refused to negotiate with Maduro. This is a common theme across historical coups: In post-colonial Syria, for example, a similar revulsion toward the entrenched political classes led radical populist Akram al-Hawrani to advocate three coups in 1949 alone.
Rigged elections — or the perception of them — are also a common cause of coup attempts. In the Middle East, opposition groups used coups against their political rivals after trying and failing to beat them electorally. Fixed elections in 1930s Iraq, for instance, led anti-establishment politician Hikmat Suleyman and his “people’s group” to jointly execute a coup with Gen. Bakr Sidqi. On the avenues to power, Suleyman later declared, “There was nothing left for us except the army.” Likewise, labeling Maduro as a “usurper,” Guaidó began calling on army partisans to seize power shortly after Maduro was inaugurated following an election many critics described as rigged in 2018.
While the divided Venezuelan opposition seems to have, at least on the surface, settled some of its differences in favor of ending Maduro’s incumbency, Guaidó’s coup advocacy occurs in the backdrop of years of opposition fragmentation — another common thread across coups through history. A lack of consensus among Maduro’s opponents makes any civilian-led challenge to his incumbency difficult to coordinate, just as divisions between Ba’athists, Communists and Nasserists in postwar Syria prevented united resistance. Coups, by contrast, require coordination among only a small number of like-minded conspirators.
And, like past coups in the Middle East, Guaidó’s call to arms follows renewed great power competition. As Moscow continues to back Maduro — the Kremlin has reportedly sent troops to shore up the president’s position — the Trump administration has dug in its heels behind the opposition. This runs parallel to how, in December 1949, a tense postwar Syria erupted into a civilian-recruited coup when the People’s Party promoted a U.S.-backed Syrian-Iraqi union. The “imperialists,” as Maduro calls them, do not create polarization but inflame it by picking sides.
That’s not all past coups in the Middle East tell us. As they proceed with their efforts, members of the Venezuelan opposition should be aware that coup advocacy cannibalizes those who practice it. Using military assistance to oust one’s political opponents can be quick and effective, but it often comes with strings attached. If the experiences of states in the Middle East are anything to go by, military officers could likely turn on Guaidó if they successfully oust Maduro.
In Turkey, the Republican People’s Party made overtures to the Turkish Armed Forces in 1960, when party leader Ismet Inonu told a room full of retired officers “to protect the soundness of Turkish society and the ideals of Turkish progress and development.” Rather then guarantee “progress,” after the coup, the National Security Council oversaw Turkish politics in a tutelary system until the early 2000s.
In Syria, officers turned on Arab Socialists, Social Nationalists and Ba’athists after they backed coups in in the 1940s and 1950s. After Damascus’s secession from the United Arab Republic in 1961, Ba’ath civilians authorized another coup in March 1963 only to be forced out of power in a military coup in 1966.
Finally, Venezuela’s opposition should consider the regrets of Egypt’s Tamarod leaders who backed Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s coup in July 2013. “We were naïve,” noted Moheb Doss shortly after former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Politician Amr Hamzawy read the writing on the wall early on, admonishing Egypt’s liberals for allying with the military establishment “without deep reflection about the essence of democracy.”
As the history of coups in the Middle East has shown, overthrowing Maduro with the help of the military may rid Caracas of a dictator, but it will not rid the country of authoritarianism. And it might, as in Egypt, produce something even worse.