Mutiny Attempt Tests Maduro's Tenuous Grip on Power in Venezuela

(Bloomberg) -- It was still dark, but Venezuela’s army had already smothered a mutiny and turned to tear-gassing protesters supporting the rebels. Later in the morning, the loyalist Supreme Court announced that it would depose the National Assembly’s head and nullify its motion declaring President Nicolas Maduro’s rule invalid. Then, Brazil’s president predicted a speedy regime change.

It was only Monday.

Mutiny Attempt Tests Maduro's Tenuous Grip on Power in Venezuela

Governing this hungry and restive nation has become a balancing act for Maduro, who faces a litany of threats, any one of which could break his grip on power. Foes at home and abroad have rallied behind the opposition’s fresh-faced leader, assembly president Juan Guaido, who’s calling on world leaders and the military to recognize him as the rightful head of state. Open protest meetings and spontaneous rebellions are building, and the opposition is calling for countrywide demonstrations Wednesday against the Socialist autocracy.

“The government is acting quickly to avoid anything that could lead to a chain reaction,’’ said Marco Antonio Ponce, the director of the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, a Caracas non-profit. “Protests are only going to continue.”

Gunfire in Darkness

Maduro has tried to insulate himself as his country, once South America’s richest, spiraled into dysfunction and misery: He won a six-year term last in year in an election widely viewed as fraudulent, he has jailed and exiled dissidents, and he has created a so-called Constitutional Assembly that is politically omnipotent. But his regime remains vigilant for any spark that could kindle his country into flame.

One was stamped out before dawn Monday. About two dozen national guardsmen raided Caracas military outposts, stealing weapons and holding other soldiers captive before gathering in a fort near the city center. Videos posted on social media show guardsmen arguing with their hostages about why they wouldn’t break ranks given the state of the country, while others called on civilians to rise up.

“Didn’t you want the military to take the streets and light the fuse?’’ a guardsmen who identified himself as Sergeant Luis Bandres said in one of the recordings. “We’re lighting it here.’’

Small demonstrations sprung up throughout the capital following the attack, with residents gathering in major avenues and dragging debris into the streets. The Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, which monitors national unrest, registered over two dozen protests in central and west Caracas.

Loyalty Tests

Speaking on state television, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the Constitutional Assembly, told reporters that counter security forces quashed the rebellion, detaining 27 people -- including Bandres -- and recovering the looted arms. Investigations are underway across the armed forces to root out dissidents and the government “has no fears about taking the actions that need to be done,’’ he said.

Neither Maduro nor his defense and interior ministers appeared publicly on Monday.

In 2017, Maduro, the 56-year-old successor to the late Hugo Chavez, relied on security forces to beat back a wave of anti-government demonstrations resulting in more than 120 deaths. Demonstrations may now be less visible, but they’re more frequent. According to the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, over 12,700 protests took place in Venezuela in 2018, many over rising prices and crumbling basic services, a 30 percent increase from the year prior. Ponce said their spread demonstrates the government’s dwindling support among the poor, long seen as the bedrock of Chavez’s political project.

Shadow Government

Maduro’s difficulties aren’t in the streets alone. Since Guaido took the helm of the opposition-dominated National Assembly on Jan. 5, he has argued that the constitution lets him serve as acting president in the absence of a lawful government. The idea appears to be gaining traction with Venezuelans and regional powers, including the U.S. and the Organization of American States. On Monday, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro told reporters at the Davos World Economic Forum that he hoped Venezuela’s government changed “soon.’’

Last week, the National Assembly, which is the only institution not controlled by ruling socialist party loyalists, declared Maduro’s rule illegitimate and approved the framework that would allow for a caretaker government. The move was largely symbolic; Venezuela’s Supreme Court stripped the body of almost all its powers in 2017, but on Monday it went even further.

Mutiny Attempt Tests Maduro's Tenuous Grip on Power in Venezuela

The court declared the legislature in contempt and nullified all its recent actions, including the appointment of Guaido as its president. The 35-year-old said he wouldn’t back down and redoubled his calls to streets Wednesday, the anniversary of Venezuela’s six-decade old democracy.

Lay Down Arms

Guaido released a video appealing to the military to not suppress the demonstrations. “We’re not asking you for a coup,’’ he said repeating his offer of blanket amnesty. “We’re asking you not to shoot us, and to defend the right of the people to be heard.’’

Mutiny Attempt Tests Maduro's Tenuous Grip on Power in Venezuela

Discontent has been simmering in the armed forces, long seen as the key power broker in Venezuela. Over the past year, the government has quietly jailed dozens of soldiers accused of conspiring against the regime.

Monday’s pre-dawn rebellion was ended before most Venezuelans in the capital got to work. But for many in Cotiza, the working-class neighborhood where the fort sits, the raid was treated as a call to arms.

After being awoken by gunfire, residents responded by banging pots and pans and descending on the national guard post. Protesters lit trash bins on fire at the entrance of the base and hurled stones and trash at soldiers from hillside shanties. They returned fire with volleys of teargas and plastic buckshot.

Since Chavez took power two decades ago, the wealthy- and middle-class sectors that make up East Caracas have been the prime staging ground for anti-government unrest. Monday’s clashes took place near downtown, just over a mile from the presidential palace and government ministries.

“What happened in Cotiza shows that working-class sectors, and those loyal to Chavismo, are willing to take to the streets -- and even back those who take up arms,” Ponce said.

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