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Guaidó Is Stumbling Toward a Coup
Naunihal Singh, an expert on military takeovers, addresses what to watch as Venezuela's would-be president attempts to oust Maduro.
On Tuesday morning, Juan Guaidó, who has openly challenged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power since declaring himself to be the country’s legitimate president in January, propelled the country’s long-simmering political crisis into new and uncertain territory.
Speaking in front of uniformed men at La Carlota Air Base in Caracas, and flanked by the opposition politician Leopoldo López, who had just been freed by the military after a prolonged detention, Guaidó told Venezuelans in a Twitter video: “These have been years of sacrifice, years of persecution, and even years of fear. Today, we defeat that fear.” Positioning himself as the “legitimate commander in chief of the armed forces,” he called on “all the soldiers, the entire military family, to accompany us in this endeavor.”
The Venezuelan government, which is loyal to Maduro, was quick to denigrate Guaidó’s call to “activate” the “final phase” of his efforts to be recognized as Venezuela’s president. It released a statement saying simply that it was “putting down a small coup attempt.”
Hours later, a video of a pro-Maduro tank veering into a knot of pro-Guaidó demonstrators was shared widely, and it is rapidly becoming a visual touchstone of Venezuela’s moment of instability. While some people sped out of the way, the footage showed the armored vehicle rolling right over others. It is unclear what either side will do next.
The military uprising that Guaidó has called for isn’t formally categorized as a coup yet—that would require him to take power, and then hold on to it for seven days. But he is certainly attempting one. Foreign Policy spoke to Naunihal Singh, who analyzed 471 coup attempts from Ghana to the Soviet Union in his book, Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, to cut through some of the fog.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: What dynamics should everyone be paying attention to as Venezuela moves through a volatile day?
Naunihal Singh: Here’s the thing: At the heart of every coup, there is a dilemma for the people in the military. And it goes like this: You need to figure out which side you’re going to support, and in doing so, your primary consideration is to avoid a civil war or a fratricidal conflict.
If done correctly, a coup-maker will get up there and make the case that they have the support of everybody in the military, and therefore any resistance is minor and futile and that everyone should, either actively or passively, support the coup. And if you can convince people that’s the case, it becomes the case.
But in order to do this, you need to convince everyone not only that you’re going to succeed, but that everyone else thinks that you’re going to succeed. And in order to do that, you need to use some sort of public broadcast.
What is important here is the simultaneity of it. It’s the fact that you know that everybody else has heard the same thing as you have. And social media—Twitter—doesn’t do that.
FP: And can you tell us why Twitter isn’t really going to cut it?
NS: What broadcasts do is they create collective belief in collective action. Coup-making is about manipulating people’s beliefs and expectations about each other.
If I’m commanding one unit, even if I see Juan Guaidó’s official Tweet, I’m not going to even know how many other people within the military have seen it. What’s more, I would have good reason to believe that the penetration of this tweet within the military will be pretty slight. I have no idea what internet access is like inside the Venezuelan military right now. But I imagine that most military people don’t follow Juan Guaidó’s feed, because doing so would expose them to sanctions from military intelligence, and in that context, it would very clearly mark them as a traitor. But the other thing is this—what we think of as viral tweets operate on a far slower time scale than a broadcast. And coups happen in hours.
FP: What is the current coverage missing when it comes to understanding the forces at play in Venezuela?
NS: What’s interesting to me is the response by Brazil and Colombia. These are conservative governments. They are no fan of Maduro’s, but when Guaidó stepped up with this coup attempt, they very clearly did not support him. And if you can’t even get the support of the president of Brazil, who is himself is a Trumpian figure who is often willing to speak off the cuff, then it suggests that your international hand is extremely weak.
FP: Do you think that there’s any path to success for Guaidó’s efforts? What would that look like?
NS: It would be similar to what we have seen in Sudan. If Guaidó were to spark a huge number of people on the streets, which could then lead to a fracture within the military, that would do it.
But I actually think he may have been doing something else. I think he’s concerned about his relevance. He was in the spotlight, but that has been fading. All of his talk didn’t go anywhere. Beyond that, and he is term-limited—the Constitutional Court has said that said he can’t run again [for public office]. His response to that was that this doesn’t matter, because he plans to take over in the course of his current term, or to restore democracy over the course of his term.
FP: So he is facing this personal countdown. Do you think that could be informing his approach?
NS: We don’t really know what Guaidó’s incentives are here or what game he is playing. And this may be more about increasing his centrality than actually about succeeding. Maybe he wants to be a prisoner of conscience. Maybe he wants to be a symbol of democracy rather than a failed politician.
FP: A tank was filmed as it ran people down in the streets of Caracas today. How do you expect that to play into the dynamics of Guaidó’s attempted coup?
NS: Any massive crackdown on protesters will make Guaidó look good and the government look bad. Right now, Guaidó seems to have few friends outside the country. This might change if protesters are brutalized by the government.
FP: Guaidó delivered his message to Venezuela this morning standing in front of men in green fatigues with helmets on, and armored vehicles in the background. Tell me about how Guaidó is drawing on familiar visual strategies of coups. What did he get right and wrong about the optics?
NS: It’s a dawn video, which is very classic. But there’s a problem: Guaidó does have military people there, but in order to be more credible he would have had a high-ranking military figure standing side by side with him. He can’t make it appear like there’s a military takeover. He also has to make it clear that this is a civilian action and that it’s within the constitution. As a result, he’s standing at the front and he’s got some soldiers in the back, but because they are low-ranking soldiers, it doesn’t mean very much, and it doesn’t carry very much weight.
FP: And why is that such a critical misstep?
NS: Traditional broadcasts are designed to convince military actors that the coup is succeeding. They are not actually directed at civilian actors. I think it’s likely that this broadcast that Guaidó made is directed at civilians or international actors, because it’s not at all persuasive to military actors. So either Guaidó just completely misunderstands how these operate, which was possible, or he’s playing a different game.
FP: And what is the endgame that you think Guaidó is attempting to get to?
NS: I think he is trying to see if he can get Maduro to order a crackdown on the civilians who come around him, which will lead to one of two outcomes. The first is that the military would refuse to crack down—like we have seen in Sudan—and that could then precipitate a coup. The second is that the military would crack down and then this would lead to international outcry in a way that might be favorable to Guaidó and his supporters.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. The opinions expressed are his own and not those of his employer.