Earlier this week, a helicopter attack against the Venezuelan government drew the world’s attention to the fragile Nicolas Maduro regime, as well as the economic plight of Venezuelan people. Large, occasionally violent, protests have continued for months against the regime. Given the newest development of the helicopter attack, observers must ask themselves: how vulnerable is Maduro to being overthrown in a coup or through pressure from mass dissent?
President Maduro quickly labeled the attack by rogue policeman Oscar Perez a coup attempt, though such an isolated action with a small number of conspirators did not pose a serious threat to the regime. However, the ability of Perez to drop grenades on a government building, escape, and release a video poses future threat. If members of the security forces want to stage a coup, they must solve the collective action problem, coordination problem, and identify potential co-conspirators. Perez, still on the run, conveyed his opposition to the regime and could provide a focal point for like-minded dissenters.
Perez’s action closely follows Maduro’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters. This is no coincidence. Authoritarian regimes face a moral hazard problem with using security forces for repression. Security forces granted powers in states of emergency have enough autonomy to defect from the regime, or to refuse to participate in future repression. Security forces are more likely to defect if they are asked to repress nonviolent protesters. This combination of mass dissent and military coup occurred most notably in Egypt in 2011.
However, the Maduro regime will refuse to go quietly, having its own tools to prevent defections and counter mass dissent. Inserting known loyalists into security forces, or developing military units reporting directly to the regime prevent coup-minded collective action from developing. Effective civilian control of the military may not prevent all coup attempts, but limits the potency of those that occur. For example, last year’s coup attempt in Turkey failed to coordinate across military branches, and regime loyalists put down the attempt within a day.
Additionally, using the selectorate model as a framework, Maduro can sustain the regime with the support of the chavistas, poor Venezuelans benefiting from oil-revenue-funded distributions during the Hugo Chavez years, and the military. However, as oil prices remain low and shortages mount, the regime will not be able to pay off the coalition it needs to stay in power. With its meager base of support eroding, the regime has increasingly relied on brutal paramilitaries to repress dissent.
What’s next for Venezuela? The lack of coordination among the opposition could spell a long period of low-grade conflict and acute human suffering as ordinary people starve and lose access to social services. Deprivation fuels grievance and unorganized social conflict. Two alternative paths could spell a quicker demise for Maduro:
(1) Brokerage between opposition groups, especially the middle classes and student movement. A more united opposition poses a greater mass threat to the regime, but appears unlikely now.
(2) Coordination among security forces to stage a coup. Oscar Perez may have initiated this path, which will require more defections to gain traction.