by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Retired Brig. Gen. Antonio Rivero had been missing for months. But in January, the Venezuelan suddenly appeared outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.
A critic of Pres. Nicolás Maduro, Rivero fled Venezuela more than a year ago after serving a jail sentence for sedition. The ex-general requested international protection. He also warned the Spanish news agency EFE that the country’s officer corps is angry.
“The country’s crisis situation — social, political, economic, and of insecurity — considerably affects the armed forces, and from that point of view there is a discontent,” Rivero said.
Then, a few weeks after Rivero appeared in New York warning about disgruntled military officers, the Venezuelan government announced it arrested a group of air force officers on suspicion of plotting a coup.
Caracas claimed the conspirators planned to use a Tucano ground-attack plane to attack government buildings. The officers would then overthrow the regime. Then later in February, the government arrested Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, alleging he participated in a coup plot.
It’s impossible to verify if these plots were real. The same is true for Rivero’s claims. “[Rivero’s] comments may or may not reflect a salient attitudinal condition or change within the Venezuelan military institution,” stated OE Watch, the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office’s newsletter.
“However, amid the continuing avalanche of negative socio-economic news coming out of Venezuela these days, his assertions bear close consideration and cross-examination as an indicator at least of the timing of a potential political explosion.”
It’s certainly interesting — and Venezuela is in a heap of trouble.
The country’s inflation rate is above 60 percent. In 2013, the percentage of the population living in poverty rose from 25.4 percent to more than 32 percent, according to the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The country is experiencing severe shortages in basic goods — such as food and toilet paper.
Venezuelan government revenues are heavily dependent on oil exports, and the price of oil has collapsed.
Adding to the dire situation, Venezuela has a history of coups. This is worrying, because previous coups and coup attempts provide a model for politically-ambitious military officers.
When a country has had coups before, they’re more likely to have them again — compared to a country that hasn’t had a coup.
This is true around the world — and it’s true in Latin America. Since World War II, Venezuela had had successful military coups in 1948 and 1958.
In 1992, Hugo Chávez — then a young lieutenant colonel — led a putsch against Pres. Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez and his fellow officers — known as the MBR-200 — seized the Military Museum in Caracas, but they failed to communicate orders to other conspirators in the country.
The army crushed the attempt, and Chávez spent two years in prison.
But Chávez — who died in 2013 — was later vindicated, as the coup attempt launched his political career. He was elected to the presidency in 1998. In 2002, a conspiracy of business leaders and military officers briefly deposed Chávez, but a popular uprising halted the coup and restored Chávez to power.
Today, the Venezuelan government celebrates the 1992 coup attempt as the Día de la Dignidad Nacional. The annual celebration include military parades and speeches praising the late Venezuelan leader’s actions.
But the government and its supporters don’t refer to the attempt — known as the Rebellious 4F — as a coup.
“It wasn’t a coup, it was an insurrection in the face of a particular moment and political conjuncture,” Leidy Suarez, a former member of MBR-200 said, according to the pro-government Website Venezuela Analysis. “We were living through the last days of a pseudo-democracy which repressed and starved the people.”
But this distorts the definition of a coup, which is when an element of a regime — particularly the military — uses illegal means to seize power. Chávez’s failed 1992 coup didn’t just include military officers, but they certainly led it.
If that wasn’t a coup, then there’s no such thing.
In 2013, the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi. The officers had the support of millions — which the military then leveraged to install its own officers in power. The Egyptian coup became an Egyptian junta.
“The Venezuelan military are trained to view Chávez’s actions heroically and as a model for action,” James Bosworth of the Latin American advisory firm Southern Pulse wrote.
“Of course, they are also trained to protect the Bolivarian revolution and defend the government of Nicolás Maduro. However, at a very basic level, those two doctrines, praise for 4F and supporting the democratically elected government, clash with each other.”
Which is a reason to be very worried about Venezuela’s future. Maduro’s approval ratings have tanked. The political opposition is divided. The military has also benefited from a windfall of spending during the past decade, as oil prices stayed high.
No longer. But the military has learned from Chávez’s example.
“There must be a few dozen more out there, soldiers who probably consider themselves good Chávistas, who wonder if they could do it better than Chávez in 1992, actually succeed where he failed,” Bosworth added.