There Is No Coup in Venezuela

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s unclear what will unfold in Venezuela now that interim president Juan Guaido has called for the military and citizens to take to the streets. What is clear, however, is that this is not a coup.

You wouldn’t know this from the early news coverage. “Trump Aides Back Unfolding Venezuela Coup Attempt,” reads a typical headline in Politico. CNN blared “Coup in Venezuela” in its chyron (it has amended its website to call it an “uprising”). The headlines match the messaging of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. As the country’s information minister tweeted, the event is a small group of traitors attempting a coup.

All of this is wrong, for a few reasons. To start, the dissatisfaction in Venezuela appears to rise to higher levels than the government cares to admit. For example: On Tuesday morning, according to one source close to Guaido’s interim government, the soldiers that were standing guard at the home of Leopoldo Lopez told him he was free to go. The former opposition leader had been under house arrest since July 2017.

Lopez endured one of Venezuela’s worst prisons. Maduro made sure to make an example of him. The soldiers who let Lopez go free were defying one of Maduro’s most important orders.

U.S. and Venezuelan interim government officials have also said that in recent months there have been back-channel communications between Guaido’s team and military leaders. The planning for the Tuesday’s uprising has been underway for months.

In public Guaido has pressed the National Assembly to adopt measures offering amnesty for military officers who have not engaged in violent crimes. Privately, the opposition and military have managed to subvert the Maduro regime’s blocking of electronic communications — by delivering messages by hand and arranging face-to-face meetings. That is one reason Guaido was able to address the country on Tuesday morning from an air force base without being harmed or captured.

Guaido himself, actually, is the other main reason the rebellion in Venezuela is not a coup: The interim president, who is recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations, has democratic legitimacy. Maduro is responsible for this turn of events. In May 2018, Maduro won a so-called election that no serious outside observer found to be free or fair. His second term began on Jan. 10, which is when Venezuela’s Supreme Court in exile ruled that Maduro had exceeded his authority by staying in power after his legitimate term in office.

The bottom line is that, after Jan. 10, a sequence of events began that ended with Guaido invoking a provision of the Venezuelan constitution that makes the leader of the National Assembly interim president when the presidency is vacated.

Compare Guaido’s respect for the rule of law to Maduro’s. Since the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly in 2015, Maduro has delegitimized that institution, replacing it with an emergency body that was initially created to change the constitution. Maduro has also packed the courts, arrested his opponents and assumed more power. All the while, he has put his country in hock to loans from China and Russia, while allowing Cuba to staff the top levels of his security and intelligence services.

Guaido and his supporters are now trying to save their country from Maduro’s misrule. If the military does indeed defect this week, forcing Maduro to leave, Guaido has pledged to quickly prepare Venezuela for real elections. That’s not an anti-democratic coup. It’s a democratic rescue mission.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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