The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is what’s happening in Venezuela an attempted coup? First, define ‘coup.’

An opposition demonstrator walks near a bus in flames in Caracas during clashes with soldiers loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro after troops joined opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his campaign to oust Maduro's government on April 30. (Federico Parra/AFP)

Venezuela is in the midst of a battle for political control. At a military base in the capital of Caracas on Tuesday morning, opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied thousands of people against President Nicolás Maduro, with soldiers wearing blue armbands in support of the opposition.

Guaidó's supporters are clashing with soldiers loyal to Maduro across the country. But is it an attempted coup? That depends on whom you ask — and how you define “coup.”

Maduro’s communications minister Jorge Rodríguez tweeted Tuesday that the government was battling a “coup” and was attempting to “deactivate” what he described as a “reduced group of military officials who are traitors."

Guaidó's supporters deny this claim, saying that their leader is the legitimate leader of the country. “Today, it’s clear that the armed forces are with Venezuela and not with the dictator,” Guaidó said. “The coup is being led by Maduro.”

The divide isn’t just within the country. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass News Agency that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top officials were meeting Tuesday to discuss the “attempted coup” in Venezuela.

In Washington, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the opposite. “This is clearly not a coup. We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela,” Bolton told reporters.

Bolton said that this is why Juan Guaidó could not be behind a coup. “Just as it’s not a coup when the president of the United States gives an order to the department of defense, it’s not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try to take command of the Venezuelan military.”

Guaidó, 35, took an oath to serve as interim president of Venezuela on Jan. 23 this year, claiming that Maduro’s May 2018 reelection was fraudulent. As head of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s primary legislature, Guaidó said that he would serve as interim leader, citing Article 233 of his country’s constitution that calls for new elections after an illegitimate vote.

“This would be a simple procedure in a democratic country, since it’s clearly in the Constitution, but in Venezuela it isn’t,” Guaidó wrote for The Washington Post in January, referring to Article 233.

Guaidó's claim for the presidency has split the international community. Traditional allies of Maduro such as Russia and China have stood by the strongman leader; many international organizations, including the United Nations, continue to see Maduro as Venezuela’s president.

But the United States, along with most of Europe and Latin America, now recognize Guaidó as Venezuelan president even though he does not have practical control of the country.

Definitions of a coup vary, though most agree that there must be the use or threat of force by people inside the government with the aim of seizing control over the national political authority. Some definitions also say that the plotters must use illegal means to seize power.

Whether you think that situation applies in Venezuela will probably depend on your view of Guaidó — whether he is a democratically legitimatized leader or a foreign-backed usurper — and whether you think that the action he and his supporters are taking is illegal.

Some academics have theorized that there may be nobler types of coups, such as a “democratic coup” or a “guardian coup.” But the United States is unlikely to get into shades of gray. Indeed, it has practical reason not to.

Section 508 of the United States’ Foreign Assistance Act requires Washington to suspend aid to nations that undergo a military coup, though experts say the law’s language leaves it open to interpretation. After the 2013 overthrow of the Egyptian government by the military, the United States pointedly refused to say the word.

And while Venezuela is not a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance such as Egypt, it may be one day.

“The United States and our partners and allies stand ready to leverage the tools of the international financial community to help swiftly restart Venezuela’s economy,” the Treasury Department said in a statement Wednesday.

Coup or no coup, that will happen only if Guaidó's efforts to take control of the Venezuelan state are successful.

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