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Revolt shows instability of Maduro's Venezuela

Enrique Anarte
January 22, 2019

A small group of Venezuelan soldiers have apparently failed in their attempt to overthrow the regime. Observers say the uprising demonstrates how unstable Venezuela's political situation has become.

Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Llano

On Monday, members of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) launched an apparent uprising. Things were seemingly back to normal by afternoon. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the "criminals" had been arrested and would feel the full force of the law.

The failed revolt once again illustrates the political instability and humanitarian crises that plague Venezuela. Internationally and at home, the very legitimacy of President Nicolas Maduro, who has been sworn in for a second term, is being questioned.

"There have been similar revolts in the past," said Victor Mijares, a Venezuelan native and professor of political science at the University of Los Andes in the capital of Colombia, Bogota. "There will be more in the future," he said.

Venezuela's opposition has called for nationwide protests on Wednesday.

Mijares said Venezuelan soldiers had to put up with working conditions that breed discontent. Low- and midlevel personnel are particularly disgruntled, he said. "These people have the same worries that most ordinary citizens have. So this is a revolt by impoverished citizens, albeit with guns and uniforms."

The question is whether Venezuela's disaffected citizens and military personnel will manage to destabilize the regime. And whether that would actually pave the way toward a democratic transition.

Bolsonaro floats 'solution'

What role might Venezuela's neighbors play in efforts to destabilize the government? Would they support a revolt against a regime that they regard as illegitimate?

Leonardo Bandarra, a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), said regional right-wing leaders such as Argentine President Mauricio Macri and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, would likely take the temperature of domestic politics in their respective countries before deciding on how to respond to such an uprising. This is especially the case for Bolsonaro, who warned during his election campaign that Brazil could turn into a second Venezuela.

Macri has deemed President Maduro a "dictator," and Bolsonaro has encouraged Venezuelans to practice "resistance" and remain "confident" that a "solution will soon present itself."

The Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who serves as the head of the National Assembly, could assume a pivotal role in a revolt, Bandarra said. Should he insist on assuming the role of president, he could count on the backing of regional powers Argentina and Brazil. "They could launch an intervention if a government led by Guaido calls for this," he said. But he is skeptical as to whether public opinion in Argentina and Brazil would be in favor of such an undertaking.

What about Trump?

Kai Michael Kenkel, a professor for international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, said the real question was what US officials would choose to do should Maduro's government be destabilized. "It all depends on whether the United States will be willing to carry out a military intervention. I do not think Brazil has the military means to make an incursion into Venezuela, and it is not considering this either," Kenkel said. 

Mijares, the Venezuelan political scientist, said US officials had already considered intervening in some ways. "Not a typical military intervention from the outside, like for example in Afghanistan or Iraq," he said. "Instead, this is about creating the conditions so that the Venezuelan army can intervene in the political sphere and bring down the regime from within."

Venezuela has been a failed state for a while now, Mijares said. "Apparently Washington and regional neighbors would recognize a military-led interim government if it paves the way towards a democratic system in Venezuela," he added. But Maduro has proved resilient, and nobody knows exactly how much more political turmoil it will take to remove him from office, Mijares said.

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