Don’t Call it a Coup: Venezuela, Maduro, and the Crisis of Legitimacy
The international community is picking sides in the ongoing governmental crisis in Venezuela, a South American nation that currently has two presidents: interim President Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by several Latin American nations, Australia, Georgia, and the US to name a few; and President Nicolás Maduro, who is supported by the governments of Bolivia, China, Cuba, Russia, among others.
Washington’s support for interim President Guaidó has prompted accusations that the US government is, once again, supporting a coup in a Latin American state. For example, at a January 29 event with Guaidó’s special representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Gustavo Tarre at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, three Code Pink protesters interrupted the conference, shouting that the US was orchestrating a coup in Caracas. Hence, it is important to clarify that what is happening in Venezuela is not a coup.
How We Ended Up Here
Venezuela held elections in 2013 following the death of then-President Hugo Chávez. Maduro, acting president at the time, was elected for a full presidential term. Then, in 2015, the country held parliamentary elections in which, for the first time in over a decade, the anti-Maduro opposition gained control of this legislative body. Maduro and his allies would then attempt to discredit or limit the National Assembly’s powers. For example, in 2017 the Venezuelan Supreme Court, made up of pro-Maduro judges, stripped the Assembly of its powers, though it eventually reversed its decision. The regime would then create a National Constituent Assembly (NCA)—based on Articles 347-349 of the 1999 constitution—filled with Maduro supporters to draft a new constitution and to, by default, replace the National Assembly. This is an important fact as there are now two legislative bodies, as well as two presidents, in Venezuela.
Fast forward to May 2018, when Venezuela held presidential elections once again as Maduro’s 2013–18 term was coming to an end. This electoral process has been heavily critiqued by the international community due to the lack of international observers and the fact that opposition parties, except for one candidate, boycotted the elections. Voter turnout was similarly low. Maduro won these elections, and on January 10 he was inaugurated for a presidential term, from 2019–23.
Here is where things get complicated: the opposition-led National Assembly continued to exist, even though Maduro favored the National Constituent Assembly. Decisions made by the Constituent Assembly are regarded as illegitimate by the opposition and by the anti-Maduro international community. For example, in late-May 2018, Maduro took the oath of office in front of the National Constituent Assembly and was inaugurated this past January in front of the NCA as well, not the National Assembly, as stated in Article 231 of the constitution.
Because the opposition-controlled National Assembly does not recognize the elections and the NCA, Juan Guaidó, as president of the National Assembly, was named interim president on January 23. This move is supported by Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that “pending election and inauguration of the new President, the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.”
The main issues here are whether the May 2018 elections can be considered democratic and which legislative organism has validity, the National Assembly or the National Constituent Assembly. Pro-Maduro supporters recognize the elections as fair; hence, he is the rightful president of the country. Anti-Maduro supporters, obviously, state that this is not the case.
As with any crisis, an important fact to keep in mind is whether there is a foreign power involved. In Venezuela’s case, the Maduro regime and its supporters argue that they are the victims of an economic war orchestrated by Washington and that the US and Colombia are trying to overthrow Maduro. Case in point, the two governments were accused of organizing a bizarre August 2018 incident in which an explosion was labeled by Caracas as an assassination attempt against Maduro via a drone attack.
To be fair, the US, just like other global powers, has a long history of involvement in the domestic affairs of other nations to protect its interests, including regime change. Moreover, US media reports have mentioned that Washington officials have met with anti-Maduro Venezuelan military officers to discuss possible coups.
With that said, the government of interim President Guaidó in Venezuela is not a coup, but rather the result of following the law as stated by Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, which ironically was drafted by Hugo Chávez upon taking power. It is ludicrous to regard the 2018 elections as free, fair, or democratic, and the swear-in ceremony did not occur in front of the National Assembly, as stated by the constitution, but rather in front of the National Constituent Assembly. Hence, Maduro’s term ended on January 9, and Guaidó became interim president.
Venezuela currently has two heads of state: President Maduro is the de facto leader, as his allies continue to control the armed forces, supreme court, the National Constituent Assembly, the electoral commission, among other state agencies. Meanwhile, interim President Guaidó is the de jure leader but controls no territory or institutions other than the National Assembly.
A plethora of nouns can be utilized to describe the situation in Venezuela, but “coup” is not one of them.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues. He tweets at @W_Alex_Sanchez.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.