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Venezuela on the Brink of a Coup d’État?

By: Contributor - Jan 15, 2015, 11:08 am

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Is a coup d’état in Venezuela imminent, or even possible, as reported by intelligence consulting firm Stratfor?

Venezuelan political analysts surveyed by the PanAm Post don’t all think it’s feasible that the military will seek to prevent Nicolás Maduro taking office when he returns from a long — and so far unsuccessful — tour around the world seeking financial aid. But they all concede that such a scenario would worsen the country’s already critical situation.

 Intelligence analysts doubt the loyalty of Venezuela's armed forces toward President Maduro. (Foto: nicolasmaduro.org.ve)
Intelligence analysts doubt the loyalty of Venezuela’s armed forces toward President Maduro. (nicolasmaduro.org.ve)

Maduro, who this Thursday, January 15, was scheduled to give his annual address to the National Assembly, has instead been trying to convince Vladimir Putin in Moscow to cut back oil production and thus stop the downward spiral of international crude petroleum prices.

It’s uncertain if Maduro will even attend the ruling-party-controlled Congress this week, since he’s expected to still pay a visit to Mexico.

According to Texas-based Stratfor, “Given Venezuela’s dire economic situation, it is plausible that elements of the government are planning extreme action. Because Venezuela depends on oil exports for more than 90 percent of its foreign currency inflows, several months of declining oil prices have exacerbated its already strained public finances.… The country’s downward economic spiral has directly affected Maduro’s ability to rule.… and [he] has an approval rating of around 20 percent.… He has also struggled to manage the various factions that make up the PSUV, threatening the stability of the party. ”

The report adds that if isolated opposition protests become widespread like the ones from February 2014, “factions within the PSUV could perceive them as a threat to the party’s continued rule and may consider the removal of Maduro to be a plausible choice to offset public anger against the party.” It underlines the importance of Maduro’s tour to either accelerate or disrupt this process.

So far, as Maduro himself has admitted, the trip has achieved only meager results: the oil cartel OPEC doesn’t seem to be willing to reduce production anytime soon, and financial-aid promises by China and Qatar remain vague.

“Without any meaningful economic lifelines, Maduro will have few options to counter Venezuela’s economic decline,” Stratfor concludes.

Why It’s Unlikely

The PanAm Post consulted three military analysts about the prospects of a coup: former Defense Minister Fernando Ochoa Antich; lawyer, university professor, and head of NGO Security, Defense, and Armed Forces Citizen Watchdog Rocío San Miguel; and retired Lieutenant Colonel Iván Ballesteros, who became an ardent Hugo Chávez critic after being a supporter of his administration, and whose anti-Chavista radio show was suspended last year by the National Telecommunications Commission.

Ochoa — Defense minister when the late Hugo Chávez led the February 1992 coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez — deems it “possible” but not likely that Chavista factions are plotting to remove the uncharismatic and weak Maduro and put someone “more radical” in his stead, because “it would only deepen the severest crisis facing the country as of yet.”

For the retired general, “the only solution” is a “constitutional way out, a national unity government that would require Chavistas to still have some power, but acknowledging they must compromise.” Without this, Venezuela “will starve” as a result of “16 years of misgovernment.”

He adds that “it should be clear for the Chavista military that substituting [Maduro] is not the alternative, and on the contrary would carry both domestic and international repercussions that would make the crisis worse.”

San Miguel, on the other hand, sees “no chance” that Stratfor’s analysis becomes true and attributes it to “extremists from both sides who are spreading rumours.” She points out that, while the high command perceive the country’s crisis, “they’re very comfortable with the status quo.”

She believes that the mounting social unrest has not yet converted into sufficient political crisis, and that the government has successfully played the card of protest criminalization. Nevertheless, she warns that if the crisis indeed gets worse, the military wing “would be presented with an interesting opportunity,” but that it would be a “medium to long-term” plan.

“Despite Maduro being under heat as president, I just don’t see the possibility of a move such as the one envisaged by Stratfor. It’s wishful thinking,” San Miguel declares.

On the other hand, Ballesteros claims the US-firm report does portray what is going on inside Venezuela’s armed forces: “The army now has to share power with Maduro’s group and his wife’s, Cilia Flores, and with Diosdado Cabello’s, who doesn’t have the military rank to command respect. They could be tempted to handle [President Maduro] without the middlemen.”

He adds that Maduro never matched Hugo Chávez’s prestige among the military, who perceive Maduro as more radicalized than his predecessor. Besides, the high army commanders are feeling the US pressure over human-rights violations. Maduro, instead of putting out the fire, has aggravated it.

Ballesteros cautions: “I don’t know if it’s a matter of days or months, there’s no precise date, but the military know they’re not able to respond to foreign conflicts, so they’d rather handle an internal one.”

All three, however, agree that Stratfor’s prediction would mean more economic, political, and social instability for Venezuela.

Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.