On Tuesday, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó stood in front of the La Carlota Air Base in Caracas and called upon the military to join him in the effort to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power.
But what happens now also depends on the actions of the other security forces under Maduro’s command. Both Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, created new paramilitary and militia units to hedge against defection from the regular military. Scholars have a name for this coup-proofing strategy: “counterbalancing.”
How does counterbalancing play out in crises like the one currently unfolding in Venezuela? Here are three important points to understand:
1. Counterbalancing is a widespread — and effective — coup-proofing strategy
Counterbalancing involves the creation of presidential guards, militarized police, militia and other security forces outside military command. The leadership may task these forces with monitoring the military, or use them to suppress political opponents. These forces typically are deployed near symbolic centers of political power, such as the presidential palace, that are the targets of coup attempts.
Many countries adopt counterbalancing strategies. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein created multiple, overlapping security forces, including the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam, as counterweights to the regular army. But counterbalancing is not solely a strategy of dictators. Early post-independence rulers in India also invested in internal security forces for regime protection.
Rulers counterbalance because it’s an effective tool to keep them in power. My research suggests that counterbalancing does not necessarily deter soldiers from staging coup attempts, however. Military officers tend not to look favorably upon the creation of new institutions that compete for resources and recruits. As a result, counterbalancing can sometimes provoke the very coup attempt it was intended to prevent.
Once in place, however, counterweights increase the risk that coup attempts will fail. Having multiple security forces in the vicinity of their targets makes it more difficult for coup plotters to recruit, and to control the flow of information once a coup attempt is underway, both of which are crucial to success.
Soldiers in counterbalancing forces — often recruited and promoted for their loyalty — also have powerful incentives to resist coup attempts. Because counterweights are likely to be subordinated to the military chain of command, or eliminated altogether in the wake of a successful coup, even members of counterweights not personally loyal to the incumbent regime have incentives to push back against coup plots.
It is thus no surprise that coup attempts against regimes with three or more security forces fail at nearly twice the rate of coups against regimes with a more consolidated security sector.
2. But counterbalancing can increase the risk of military defection during mass protests
While counterbalancing can undermine coup attempts, it can also backfire when opposition to a regime is more widespread. Academic research on the behavior of militaries during mass protests suggests that counterbalancing makes militaries more likely to defect, or simply sit on the sidelines.
In part, this happens because counterbalancing consumes resources that could have gone to the regular military. As a result, even where rulers keep military spending high, soldiers may believe their status would rise under a new regime. Moreover, where counterweights take over internal policing tasks, soldiers in the regular military are also less likely to be implicated in human rights abuses that might give them a personal stake in the regime’s survival.
In Tunisia, for instance, Hicham Bou Nassif documents how institutional rivalries between military and police forces alienated the military from Ben Ali’s regime. During the 2010-2011 uprising, military officers were then unwilling to use force against civilians to keep him in power. Tunisia’s police forces were unable to do so on their own, and the regime collapsed.
Similar dynamics occurred during earlier uprisings. Comparing the military response to mass uprising in Benin in 1989-1990 and Togo in 1990-1993, Julien Morency-Laflamme finds that counterbalancing opened the door to military-opposition alliances.
3. How might the situation in Venezuela play out?
Whether Guaidó intended to provoke a military coup with his announcement Tuesday remains unclear. But the extent to which Venezuela has engaged in counterbalancing suggests a military coup would be less likely to succeed.
Maduro has several different security forces, in addition to the regular military, under his command. Some he inherited from Chávez’s regime. After a failed coup attempt in 2002, Chávez established the Bolivarian National Militia, a civilian paramilitary force, to deter subsequent attempts. Today, it numbers some 2 million members, and answers directly to Maduro. In April, Maduro called for it to add another million.
In 2017, Maduro also created the Special Actions Forces, or FAES, a new special forces group within the national police. While the group’s purported purpose was to combat crime, political opponents report that the FAES has targeted them. Provea, a Venezuelan human rights group, linked the force to over 200 deaths last year. Maduro has increasingly depended upon the FAES to suppress the protests this spring.
In addition, the government has supplied and trained armed bands of civilians called colectivos, who have also become important tools for the regime to suppress opposition.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all these forces would remain loyal to Maduro in the event of a coup. There are numerous examples of counterweights that, for one reason or another, fail to protect the regime.
But the number of distinct security forces Maduro employs increases the risk that at least one will resist using armed force. Research on mass protests suggests that if Guaidó can provoke more widespread public opposition to Maduro, the regime’s efforts to counterbalance may change the calculus for the military. Until then, soldiers may have good reason to be wary of joining Guaidó.