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Why a Coup Is Unlikely in Venezuela

The Trump administration clearly wants one. But the people don't, and neither the military nor neighboring countries are interested in making one happen.

Juan Guaidó speaks at a mass rally in which he declared himself the country's 'acting president'. Federico Parra/AFP/Getty

For the first two years of his administration, Donald Trump couldn’t seem to decide what country he wanted to invade and overthrow more. One day Iran was in the crosshairs, the next North Korea, then Syria or China or some other country that had triggered Trump’s rage.

So far, other than a missile strike on Syria in 2017, Trump hasn’t acted on any of his foreign policy temper tantrums. But for some time now, the president’s obsession with imperial warmongering has focused on toppling the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, whether via economic pressure, a U.S.-sponsored military coup, or provoking a joint invasion by Brazil—led by that great democrat Jair Bolsonaro—and Colombia, where “democracy” has been built on mass graves for the past half-century.

In his quest, Trump is clearly being led by the nose of the Troika of Terror: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, and the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. (Abrams’s sterling successes have included false testimony over the Iran-Contra affair, propping up murderous regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador, and helping to promote the Iraq War.) In recent weeks, both Rubio and the Miami Herald have been predicting Maduro’s impending demise.

I don’t like Maduro much. But for now, I think those predictions are wrong: Maduro is pretty well ensconced in his presidential post. And any attempt to remove him would be foolish.

In early 1989, the U.S.- backed neoliberal government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, or CAP as he was known, ordered out army troops to shoot demonstrators who took to the streets against an IMF austerity plan. Hundreds or even thousands of people were slaughtered, with the exact number proving impossible to determine since many were dumped in clandestine graves.

In February of 1992, then military officer Hugo Chávez led a coup attempt against CAP. It failed but made him a popular hero, especially after he gave a speech on national television taking responsibility for his actions, a rarity in Venezuelan politics. He famously asked other military officers who supported the coup to return to their barracks because “lamentably” and “for the moment,” their aims had failed.

Chávez went to prison but was released two years later, wildly popular. In 1999, he was elected president—and would be reelected three times.

In April 2002, a junta of military officers briefly overthrew President Chávez in a coup and installed in his place Pedro Carmona, director of Venezuela’s equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But Chavez was immensely popular at the time. The streets of Caracas exploded in protest, and within a few days, the Carmona government collapsed and Chávez was back in power—a deep embarrassment to the George W. Bush regime, which had its own vulnerabilities on the subject of electoral legitimacy, and whose assistant secretary of state Otto Reich had met with coup leaders and endorsed Chávez’s removal from office.

Trump’s strategy in Venezuela is simple and remarkably similar to what the U.S. tried to do in Iraq in the late-1990s and early-2000s before finally throwing in the towel and invading: Starve the country with brutal economic sanctions and either blame the government for the ensuing misery or justify it as necessary to promote freedom. “We have heard that a half million [Iraqi] children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” CBS’s Lesley Stahl asked Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1996. “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it,” Albright responded.

If sanctions fail to cause regime change, Step Two is to coerce or bribe military officers to overthrow the regime. That failed in Iraq and has thus far failed in Venezuela. Last fall, Trump’s administration “held secret meetings with rebellious military officers from Venezuela to discuss their plans to overthrow President Maduro,” the New York Times reported.

Simultaneously, the administration began openly calling for Maduro’s ouster. Last November, Bolton spoke at Freedom Tower, a building where anti-Castro Cubans were welcomed in 1960 after Castro’s revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista. “The troika of tyranny in this hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—has finally met its match,” he declared. He referred to the leaders of that trio of countries as “clowns” who were “akin to Larry, Curly and Moe” of the Three Stooges, and demanded they step aside or the U.S. would remove them from power.

We are now at about the stage in Venezuela where, in the Iraq case, the Bush administration invaded. Just weeks ago, the Trump administration announced it would recall all of its diplomats from Caracas and the Maduro government, in retaliation, shut down its Washington embassy and brought its personnel home. Trump has recognized as president the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, a former electronics peddler with largely foreign support and now busy rattling sabers and promising that Maduro’s days are numbered.

It’s not clear what exactly comes next. Will the U.S. invade? As insane as that sounds, we are dealing with Trump. What about a U.S.-prompted military coup? Or will the CIA once again try to kill Maduro, as it tried to kill Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and a host of other “enemies”?

Prophecy is always dangerous. But here’s why I would bet on Maduro.

There’s no question that brutal U.S. economic sanctions, in addition to Maduro’s own corrupt and repressive policies, have created a lot of misery and discontent. People are tired and believe, understandably, that the United States will continue to starve the country—and them—until Maduro is gone.

Last week, brought to Caracas by the International Peoples’ Assembly, an anti-interventionist Latin American group holding a conference, I wandered away from the official events to walk through the impoverished barrios. “I want a coup,” said one young woman I spoke to, who works in the hospitality industry. “I am fed up.” She was the only person I met who openly supported a coup, and said so with no apparent fear of political consequences. (I walked around Caracas, day and night, openly stating my politics—no one, from the government nor the opposition, harassed me or was angered by me sharing my opinions.)

But while Maduro could hardly be called well-liked, Guaidó and the U.S.-dominated opposition are widely reviled and rejected. Very few Venezuelans want to go back to 1989, when the army killed so many protestors, or to 1998, the year before Chavez was elected. Those who do are often members of the wealthy old order. Fittingly, one of the main opposition points is George Washington Plaza, a rich neighborhood sandwiched between the barrios of El Paraiso and La Vega.

And while American politicians favoring intervention often point to U.S. media reports of widespread shortages and even starvation, what I saw when walking through the city was a different story.

I met Viviana at a union meeting in El Paraiso, and we walked to her home about two kilometers away afterward. William, who was also at the union meeting, joined us. During the walk, I saw plenty of food. It may be expensive, but poor people can buy it—coffee, sugar, chicken, bread, a dazzling assortment of fruit, among other things—from street vendors and at street markets.

Certain things are indeed prohibitively costly: As we walked to Viviana’s house, I looked for someone on the street smoking a cigarette so I could bum a light. To my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone for 20 minutes. “Cigarettes are too expensive,” Viviana explained. “No one can afford to smoke anymore.

Viviana and William, however, then went on to feed me a delicious dinner of blood sausage, Pasta Bolognese and rice and chicken liver—all items Viviana had on hand in her house in the low-income barrio of La Vega. At the entrance to the neighborhood, people were lined up waiting for buses and moto taxis. Even more than most barrios I visited, La Vega is overwhelmingly Chavista, featuring wall murals of former president Chavez, Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, Che Guevara, and other revolutionary Latin American leaders.

I visited a number of other barrios and didn’t have time to stop for a meal, although I was invited. In San Augustín—central Caracas—I met a woman, who preferred to be anonymous, who showed me her home high up the mountainside. The view from her window included a luxury apartment building. Most of the units were sitting empty, she told me, because the owners had fled to Miami, Orlando, Madrid, Lisbon, and elsewhere abroad.

I also met Iris, Navidad, and Pedro, who I became quite friendly with. We drank beer and smoked cigarettes, and they allowed me to take their photographs. We didn’t discuss politics much, but it was apparent they didn’t like Guaidó or the opposition. They also clearly were not going hungry and looked well fed and happy.

Another reason I believe a coup won’t work is because the U.S. has not been able to put together a bogus coalition to mount an invasion, as it did in Iraq in 2003. Both the Brazilian and Colombian governments have publicly declared they will not participate in an armed foray into Venezuela.

Nor have the Trump administration’s overtures to the Venezuelan military been effective. Thus far, the inner circle around the president appears to be holding tight. And why would they defect to the Yankees? It’s a huge risk, given that if the coup fails you’re likely to be arrested: A house in Miami or an offshore Delaware bank account won’t do you a lot of good in a prison cell.

Maduro keeps a close eye on the military. Or more specifically, Diosdado Cabello keeps a close eye on the military, and everything else in Venezuela. Cabello is the most powerful person in Venezuela and the power behind Maduro’s throne. A military official, he and Chavez were close at least since the failed 1992 coup attempt against CAP. I was told by multiple sources that Chavez picked the hapless Maduro to be vice president only because he was wary of having the cagey, brilliant Cabello as second-in-command.

The Trump administration can keep trying to induce or threaten Venezuelan military officers to depose Maduro, but good luck. Such traitors—and let’s face it, it is treason in any country to take up arms against your own government in exchange for cash and/or promises of career advancement from a foreign power—would almost surely be caught and dealt with harshly.

That leaves a U.S. invasion as the only practical option to get rid of Maduro. Sure, Bolton, Abrams, Rubio, and other right-wing politicians—some like Rubio who receive lavish campaign contributions from pro-coup interests—are all for war, but they’re not going to die fighting in the streets of Caracas. Well-placed sources have told me that a majority of senior Pentagon and intelligence officials oppose a U.S. invasion, recognizing that it would be folly.

Curiously, American oil companies with interests in Venezuela, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, have not said much publicly about Trump’s attempt to overthrow Maduro. Hopefully that’s because they know—as the president should—that war is bad for business. The oil companies do have a fortune at stake in Venezuela, however, and could ultimately decide they’ll make more with Maduro out of the way.

If history is any guide, it will take an outside power—the United States—to provoke a war. That’s the clear aim of Rubio, but he’s becoming increasingly erratic and desperate as he flails around trying to trigger a conflagration, even tweeting a bloody image of former Libya ruler Muammar Gaddafi as he demands Maduro to step down.

Maduro may be corrupt, authoritarian, bombastic, and unstable—qualities he shares with the American president fixated on deposing him. He may even have found ways to inflate his numbers in the 2018 election. But for the time being, he remains his country’s sitting president. Trump and his interventionist advisers are unlikely to change that—and they’d probably do better not to try.

This article has been updated to clarify Diosdado Cabello’s position in the government in 2002 and ExxonMobil’s current relationship with Venezuela.