Uprising shows instability of Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela

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.

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.

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Maduro begins second term as president of Venezuela

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.

Venezuela on the brink

The last straw

In March 2017, violent protests erupted across the country in response to a Supreme Court decision to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands continued to take to the streets, calling for new elections. More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

Venezuela on the brink

Hunger, a growing problem

The violence added to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.

Venezuela on the brink

Health care in crisis

The crisis has even affected health care in the oil-rich nation. Venezuelans often head to Colombia to collect medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals across Venezuela have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.

Venezuela on the brink

Power grab

By July 2017, Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly was established. For observers, it had all the hallmarks of a power grab. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of Venezuela's elected congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.

Venezuela on the brink

The West sanctions

In response to the political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and froze all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU banned arms sales to the country.

Venezuela on the brink

Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were long overdue. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the vote, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.

Venezuela on the brink

Debt default

In November 2017, the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning. Credit ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state-run oil company in "selective default." But Russia offered to restructure the South American country's debt to ensure Caracas pays its other creditors. US and EU sanctions, however, limited the chance of an agreement.

Venezuela on the brink

Presidential elections scheduled

The National Assembly announced in January 2018 that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections. The electoral authority, CNE, held the elections on May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote, leaving only one possible outcome.

Venezuela on the brink

Maduro wins ...

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to electoral authorities. However, the MUD opposition alliance put turnout at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) called the elections neither free nor fair.

Venezuela on the brink

... Guaido assumes power

But weeks into the new year, the situation took a drastic turn. On January 23, 2019, parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela — a move that was quickly recognized by US President Donald Trump. Maduro called it a US-backed "coup." Days later, the US sanctioned Venezuela's state oil firm, while Guaido staked his claim on the country's foreign assets.

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