Venezuela’s attempted ‘coup’ last week went off with all the volatility of a damp squib. Venezuelans woke up early on the morning April 30 to learn that Mr Juan Guaidó, whom many recognise as the country’s legitimate interim president, was outside La Carlota airforce base in Caracas in the company of Mr Leopoldo López and a number of National Guard officers. (Mr López is the country’s most famous political prisoner who also happens to be the leader of Mr Guaidó’s party.) They called on the military to desert Mr Nicolás Maduro and support the interim president.
Within a matter of hours it was painfully apparent that this was not going to happen, and by midday Mr López was obliged to take refuge first in the Chilean and then in the Spanish embassy. After leaving the La Carlota base opposition leaders made for the Plaza Altamira, where Mr Guaidó addressed his supporters from the roof of a car. He then led a march to the west, where they were greeted with Mr Maduro’s traditional welcome, namely, tear gas and rubber bullets.
According to an account given by the Washington Post, there had been secret meetings with key players in the Maduro regime for some time prior to this, some of which had taken place in the compound of Mr López’s home, where he was being held under house arrest. The agreement which was eventually forged, was that leading figures would withdraw their support for the current administration in return for continuing in their positions in an interim government led by Mr Guaidó, along with a promise they would not be prosecuted.
The expectation was that certain major players, such as Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López and President of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice Maikel Moreno, would speak out against Mr Maduro, and his response would be to leave Venezuela. US National Security Advisor John Bolton added some detail, explaining that the plan involved Mr Moreno declaring the Constituent Assembly illegitimate. This was the body the current president set up to neutralise the legitimately elected National Assembly headed by Mr Guaidó. Once this had been done, it would have cleared the way for the Defence Minister and senior members of the military to declare their loyalty to the National Assembly.
The problem for the opposition was that none of the people with whom they had been negotiating spoke out, and it became very clear in the course of the morning that something had gone seriously wrong. All doubt must have been banished when the Defence Minister appeared on TV and denounced the “coup”. In addition an element of farce crept into the story when Mr Bolton let it be known that Mr Maduro had had an aeroplane waiting on the tarmac to fly him to Cuba, but that the Russians intervened and dissuaded him from leaving. For their part, the Russians, of course, have denied the story.
So from a superficially promising start, whereby Mr López was released from house arrest by the officers of Sebin, Mr Maduro’s most feared intelligence service, the opposition ended up in a familiar place, watching the head of state on television surrounded by his “loyal” military commanders and ranks.
There have been various hypotheses about what went wrong, including the fact that the attempt to dislodge Mr Maduro from Miraflores took place a day early because there were rumours that Mr Guaidó was about to be arrested. This, it was said, spooked the conspirators on the government side, although opposition figures have denied that this was a factor, since they knew the date had been changed. Then there are those who suspect that Cuban spies got wind of the plot and reported it, or that those who were part of the plan thought they had done so. Others feel that Mr López’s appearance at La Carlota unnerved the military, because they don’t trust him.
In a general sense, of course, it can be said that the military is very fragmented and has been reported to be under constant surveillance by the Cubans, who have decades of experience at repression. Furthermore, the senior echelons of the armed forces and National Guard are deeply involved in a variety of business ventures from which they have become wealthy, and which they may anticipate they would lose if Mr Guaidó came to office, or any civilian government for that matter elected subsequently.
Then of course there are the officers who head criminal enterprises, particularly those relating to the drugs trade. While even if an interim administration and any later elected government were to stand by the promise not to prosecute, they may feel that that would be insufficient to protect them against extradition to the US, for example. It is possible that when the chips were down General Padrino thought that even if he declared for the National Assembly and ordered the military heads to follow suit, they would not all necessarily comply. In the end these things come down to a matter of confidence and trust, which is in short supply in Venezuela these days.
As it is Mr Maduro is now reasserting himself, not by arresting Mr Guaidó himself, but by detaining those around him. Reuters has reported that Venezuelan intelligence agents held Mr Guaidó’s deputy, Mr Zambrano, a few days ago, towing away his vehicle while he was still inside. The illegal Constituent Assembly had already removed parliamentary immunity from him as well as from six other National Assembly deputies on Tuesday, which would allow them to be prosecuted. They have been accused by the Supreme Tribunal of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and the following day accusations of the same offences were levelled against three more. It is probably a more intimidatory tactic than if they moved against Mr Guaidó himself.
The news agency quoted Head of the Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello as saying, “One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested … They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted.”
The Americans of course through their embassy have issued a warning: “Maduro and his accomplices are those directly responsible for Zambrano’s security. If he is not immediately freed, there will be consequences.” Exactly how seriously Mr Maduro’s government takes that is perhaps a matter for speculation. The failure of Mr Guaidó and the opposition is also a failure on the part of the United States. Clearly from what was said both during and after the unsuccessful removal exercise, the Americans were fully aware at a minimum of what was going on, including at the planning stage. Clearly too, like the opposition, they expected it would be sufficient to prise Mr Maduro out of Miraflores.
Britain’s Channel Four news reported last week that at a meeting involving Mr Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and someone from the Pentagon, the first-mentioned was very gung-ho about a military intervention in Venezuela. The Pentagon, it must be said, was opposed, citing the dangers which that course presented. On May 1 Mr Pompeo also said that military action was possible. But therein lies the danger. Once the Trump administration has committed itself to seeing Mr Maduro off the political stage in Caracas, all its best efforts cannot be seen to fizzle out in failure. In addition, as Mr Obama learnt to his cost, empty threats reveal weakness.
The South American states – and Guyana has a particular interest in this for obvious reasons – do not want the US to intervene militarily in Venezuela. One can only hope that Washington will not manoeuvre itself into doing so, not because that was its intention, but because it got cornered. It must be added that Florida is home to a large Cuban exile community which takes a belligerent line on Venezuela, and would have no qualms about the current administration there being removed by less benign methods than negotiation. And Florida, it must be remembered, is a state President Trump would need to win if he seeks re-election.
It remains to be seen whether US sanctions will weaken the Venezuelan government enough to force Mr Maduro into genuine negotiations with one of the South American groups, or even with the Europeans. At the moment, there seem to be few other realistic options.