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Coup Fatigue in Caracas

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro uses the threat of coups to distract from the problems of his own regime. The excuse is wearing thin.

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For generations of Latin Americans, it’s been an oldie but goodie: “Why has the United States never had a coup?” Answer: “Because there’s no American Embassy in Washington!”

Latin America witnessed many a coup during the Cold War. In recent years, though, most leaders have managed to finish their terms. Notwithstanding the rare ephemeral putsch, such as the one that befell Hugo Chávez in April 2002, or situations where judicial and legislative antipathy have blurred the lines between coup and impeachment (Honduras in 2009 or Paraguay in 2012), regional leaders would seem to have a lot less to fear than they used to.

Yet Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro sees things rather differently. Since coming to power following the death of his popular predecessor Hugo Chávez in early 2013, Maduro has, by his own account, uncovered and foiled at least 17 separate coup attempts — according to a tally by Colombia’s NTN24 network. (The video of the network’s report is worth a watch.) This number is actually larger than reliable estimates of the total number of coups executed or attempted around the entire world during this same period.

His most recent allegation on Feb. 12, about a narrowly foiled scheme to bomb the presidential palace from a jet, has caused an unusual stir. That may have something to do with his explicit emphasis on American involvement in the plot. While Maduro usually takes care to finger local opposition figures, retired generals, or sundry Venezuelan business leaders in the conspiracies against him, this time he aimed higher, accusing none other than Vice President Joe Biden of masterminding an attempt to kill or overthrow him. The United States has officially denied the claims, characterizing them as “ludicrous.”

A bit overwhelmed by it all, I asked Charles Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2002 to 2004, what he thought about such allegations. “Maduro has gone to that well so many times that it just seems silly,” he told me. Yet whether one views these alleged cabals as paranoid delusions, gospel truth, or just a cynical government attempt to manipulate public sentiment, the phenomenon cannot be understood outside the context of the late Chávez himself. “In the two and a half years I was in Caracas,” Shapiro said, “I don’t think Chávez talked so much about coups.”

Chávez didn’t have to. He lived through a real one.

Back in April 2002, Chávez was briefly overthrown and arrested. Pedro Carmona, head of the Chamber of Commerce, was declared interim president in his stead and remained in place for 48 hours — just long enough for White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to declare support for new elections before the coup collapsed and Chávez returned to power.

Shapiro was then less than a month into his ambassadorship, and while coup rumors had swirled for months beforehand, he insists that the United States was not directly involved. This was initially understood, he told me, even within Chávez’s inner circle. Soon after Chávez was reinstated in office, Shapiro had a private conversation with Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel at the latter’s home. Rangel assured the American that no one in the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government really believed that the United States was involved in the attempted overthrow. Otherwise, Shapiro remembered his host saying, the two men wouldn’t have been sitting in Rangel’s house.

For a long time before the coup attempt, Chávez was struggling against low approval ratings, having alienated himself from various key constituencies including the national oil company PDVSA, the Catholic Church, and large swathes of Venezuela’s political and professional class. Afterwards, Chávez struggled to consolidate his power and survive: first during an ill-conceived national strike and then through the lead-up to a 2004 recall referendum. It was during this period that El Comandante began regularly invoking his narrow escape from ouster to delegitimize the opposition politically, sometimes justifying unconstitutional actions by invoking a unifying external threat.

By the time the government began using information from the recall referendum to draw up a blacklist for purging PDVSA and the ministries of potential enemies in late 2004, its rhetoric regarding U.S. enmity had evolved into something greater. Skillfully building upon the messianic parallels of own fall and resurrection, Chávez’s grand narrative linked the mythology of his own experience into a legacy of older wounds. The many historic abuses of Latin American states by the United States — the invasions of Guatemala and Nicaragua, the Bay of Pigs debacle, the violent deaths of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Salvador Allende — now served as preludes to his own brush with American perfidy. And he had survived.

For Chávez, such claims were a handy shield as well as a sword. His lavish, mercurial approach to governance was never particularly stable. For decades, oil has accounted for northward of 90 percent of Venezuela’s export economy, and while El Comandante benefited from record oil prices for much of his tenure, he saved little. When prices sporadically dropped, the system quickly broke down, resulting in scarcities and public discontent (albeit at less egregious levels than Maduro faces today). To ride out these lean periods, Chávez relied on his considerable populist charm, conspiratorial rhetoric, and his prodigious talent for crafting excuses.

For the less magnetic Maduro, saddled with a 20 percent approval rating and oil prices in the mid-$40 range, the appeal of reworking the magic that once saved his mentor is obvious. Cultivating a siege mentality among Venezuelans might make them more pliable, minimizing the potential backlash from his regime’s increasingly authoritarian social controls, which have moved far beyond what was seen in the Chávez era in respect to censorship, political imprisonment, and even creeping limitations on internet use. After all, a government fighting for its very life against such implacable and powerful enemies can expect to receive the odd emergency power, as well as a bit of a pass on issues like soaring crime, scarcity and inflation. Caracas-born comic Joanna Hausmann sums up the mentality nicely: “Maduro’s elementary school excuse: ‘A coup ate my homework.’”

Upon his return to power in 2002, Chávez was flown back to Caracas by helicopter from his brief captivity to greet a mass of supporters screaming his name — an image burned into every Venezuelan’s memory, friend and foe alike. Maduro’s stories of foiled putsch attempts lack this sort of visible drama and have thus far been unable inspire the same loyalty and patience from his people. Yet the supposed coups keep coming, and each new attempt to publicize them carries a significant cost.

The constant accusations have intensified frictions in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship: Witness the situation earlier this week, when each country announced sanctions targeting the other. Nor has the diplomatic fallout been confined to Venezuela’s relations with Washington. While generalized statements of support from regional allies like Brazil and Ecuador were quickly spun by pro-government media into a sort of implicit affirmation, attempts at involving the neighbors have elsewhere backfired. When Uruguayan Vice President Raúl Sendic suggested at a recent press conference that Maduro might lack sufficient information to make “accusations of that nature,” the Venezuelan president took it personally, labeling the statement an “embarrassment” and Sendic himself a “coward.” (The spat has since continued to escalate. Rallying around its slighted VP, Uruguay has suspended a meeting of the Chávez-founded South American political union UNASUR scheduled for next week in Montevideo — a show of solidarity sure to excite Sendic, Biden, and underappreciated vice presidents around the world.)

Failing to offer much evidence for its claims aside from a few audiotapes of ostensibly plotting voices, the regime has instead turned to convince doubters through dramatic “reactions” that will draw attention, even if the claims themselves do not. Such consequences can be vicious, like the arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma by the domestic intelligence agency last month, or simply shortsighted, like capriciously instituting travel requirements (including a three-month visa application period) to prospective U.S. visitors at a time when Venezuela is desperate for dollars and investment. More often the responses are simply ostentatious, like the rash of official parades and military exercises (see photo above) currently taking place for the first time in Venezuela’s democratic history. According to Caracas-based political scientist Isabella Picón, “Some 15 percent of the people might take [the coup allegations] seriously — for the rest it’s entertainment.”

Yet Venezuela, a country in the midst of an economic and social crisis, can ill afford to indulge in expensive, coup-inspired comic operas. The old joke is funnier anyway.

FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

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