Venezuela: When a Coup Is Not a Coup, What the Hell Do You Do?

By (Christopher Dickey)
Federico Parra/AFP/Getty

John Bolton is right. Whatever it was that self-declared Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó announced on Tuesday morning in Caracas, it was “not a coup.” But it may yet be a bloodbath. And people in Latin America, who have long experience with both, know the difference.

Trump National Security Adviser Bolton was arguing that because the U.S. and other foreign governments have recognized the legitimacy of Guaidó’s claim to the office, “it’s not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try and take command of the Venezuelan military.”

Note the word “try.”

In fact, Guaidó failed to have his commands followed, leaving him with no alternative but to call for “the biggest march” in Venezuelan history on Wednesday to try to oust Nicolás Maduro, the wildly incompetent and corrupt leader who nevertheless still sits in the presidential palace of Miraflores.

And Wednesday came and the biggest march, well, it was not.

To be sure, thousands of people poured into the streets demanding Maduro’s ouster, but thousands turned out to defend him as well in worker demonstrations around the country that also commemorated May Day. Senior members of the Maduro government called for the armed militias it supports, the colectivos, to show their backing by assembling at Miraflores, gun in hand.

So, Guaidó once again tried to up the ante, telling the crowds he had to admit that when he called for the country’s soldiers to rally around him the day before “there weren’t enough.” To keep up the pressure on Maduro and his military and security forces, “From now on every day we are going to have protests,” he declared, “until we reach our objective.” He called for nationwide strikes. Meanwhile a woman was killed and some 40 people were injured in clashes.

Such competing marches, sooner or later, lead to carnage, as Venezuelans know after years protesting massively and clashing violently with Maduro’s brutal security forces. Video Tuesday of some of Maduro’s men running over protesters with an armored vehicle was regarded by many as a sign of what’s to come, and might have deterred some from joining the protests on Wednesday.

By contrast, a classic military coup, a quick and decisive golpe de Estado, would have been welcomed by many, and probably most, after years of suffering under Maduro and months of Guaidó’s half-baked proclamations and ploys.

That Guaidó has been backed by the Trump administration imposing ever more dramatic sanctions on the country’s crippled economy is not exactly a great endorsement of the young pretender to the presidency, either.

No doubt some Venezuelans would welcome U.S. military intervention, as The Daily Beast has reported in the past. And President Trump keeps saying that’s still a possibility. But declarations out of Washington and events in Caracas during the not-a-coup this week suggest Bolton and Trump have a very unreliable idea of what’s possible or likely on the ground in Venezuela, with or without the U.S. sending in the Marines, Special Operators, or, for that matter, the mercenary heirs of Blackwater.

No country wants to be liberated by self-deluding fools the way Iraq was divested of its dictator by the George W. Bush administration. And it is worth remembering that years of draconian U.S. sanctions and failed conspiracies preceded the final push to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the long and very costly aftermath we know too well. There's a rhythm to these things, with the drumbeat of little failures leading to the crescendo of big ones.

While it’s too early to write an anatomy of this week’s attempted coup in Caracas, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have given us a pretty clear picture in public of what they had in mind.

The obvious idea was for Guaidó to make his big announcement that he’d won over the military, for senior officers to fall into line behind him, and for Maduro to panic.

Pompeo announced that Maduro indeed did try to flee to Cuba,  but the Russians dissuaded him. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s disinformation spread to undermine Maduro’s abysmal credibility, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he stayed.

(Vladimir Putin’s agents have gotten quite good at helping tyrant clients survive. Look at Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And the Cubans have been the guardians of the “Bolivarian Revolution” declared by the late Hugo Chávez ever since a coup attempt failed to oust him in 2002.)

Then Bolton came out of the White House to announce the coup was not a coup, and try to stir up some more trouble by naming top Maduro officials, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, as figures who had held secret talks with Guaidó. Bolton said they should keep their “commitment” to the opposition leader.

But, no. Padrino appeared on TV to denounce Guaidó’s protests, with a huge picture of Maduro looming behind him.

There was one top official dismissed by Maduro on Tuesday, but he is also one of the most hated military men in the country: Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, head of the secret police force known as SEBIN. He had circulated a letter calling for new leadership, perhaps thinking he was the man for the job. (This is a classic frame of mind for intelligence chiefs.) As of Wednesday, Figuera was reportedly in hiding.

It had been a long day. Back when the not-a-coup began, Guaidó had been accompanied by Leopoldo López, the fiery opposition leader who has spent years in prison and under house arrest. It appeared his guards had let him go, and that was held up as a sign the Maduro military had cracked. But by afternoon López reportedly was looking for refuge with foreign diplomats, finally settling in with his family at the Spanish ambassador’s residence.

As cited in The Washington Post, Maduro was in an almost jovial mood addressing the nation on Tuesday night: “Mike Pompeo said—how crazy can things get?—that I, Maduro, had a plane ready to escape to Cuba and that the Russians prohibited me from leaving,” Maduro said. “Mr. Pompeo, please. Such a lack of seriousness. Mr. Bolton gave orders to high-ranking officers to join the coup that was overcome in Venezuela... Dear God, how far will the U.S. go?”

Good question. And how many more disappointments can the Venezuelan people stand?

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