When Is a Coup Not a Coup? When We Don’t Want It To Be One
The editorial pages are filled with complaints about describing yesterday’s attempt to get the military to overthrow the current Venezuelan government as a “coup.” The Washington Postdoesn’t like that language:
Therefore, whatever its ultimate outcome or, indeed, its strategic wisdom, Tuesday’s uprising is not a “coup attempt,” as the Maduro regime, echoed by too many people abroad, calls it. Rather, it is the latest in a series of legitimate and, for the most part, nonviolent efforts by Venezuelans, both civilian and military, to throw off an oppressive, toxic regime so that they can freely elect a legitimate government.
The Wall Street Journalagrees:
This isn’t a “coup” despite the U.S. media’s glib characterization. It’s a popular revolt against an illegitimate ruler.
When elements of the military are involved in “throwing off” an oppressive regime, that is normally referred to as a coup. The fact that the government targeted by the coup calls it one does not make it wrong to use that description. It is commonplace for supporters of a coup to describe their efforts as a “restoration” of constitutional order or democracy or both, because they want to emphasize the illegitimacy of the regime they are toppling and highlight the legitimacy of their actions. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an attempted coup going on.
For that matter, the fact that there is a coup doesn’t have to mean that there isn’t also a popular uprising taking place. The two are not mutually exclusive, and the two are often interrelated. In most cases, the military needs some kind of popular uprising to justify removing the leader for the sake of “stability” or because they want to be seen as siding with the people. There can be an uprising, and then some or all of the military steps in to remove the leader or the regime that the people in the uprising want to be rid of. That is what the Venezuelan opposition has been calling for and banking on for the last three months, and it is what Guaido called for yesterday. It didn’t happen, but can we stop pretending that this wouldn’t have been a coup if it had worked? There have been popular protests in Sudan and Algeria this year that led to the overthrow of their longtime rulers by the military in each country. Are those not coups, either? A coup does not have to lead to a military junta-type government, but as the Sudanese and Algerian examples remind us it often does.
Bolton insisted that it couldn’t be an attempted coup because the U.S. already recognized Guaido as president. That’s an amusing dodge, but our government’s recognition or lack thereof is irrelevant. If you recognize a new leader and then urge the military to topple the old one, you are calling for a coup. U.S. recognition of Guaido also doesn’t change the reality that the president they recognize doesn’t control anything and needs the military to intervene on his side to put him in power. I was reminded yesterday of Secretary Kerry’s laughable claim that the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Morsi in 2013 was simply a matter of “restoring democracy.” That was absurd then, and it is even more ridiculous today. Almost six years later, the leader of the 2013 coup still rules Egypt and the “restored” democracy just held a sham referendum that ensured Sisi’s continued rule of Egypt for more than another decade at least. Kerry’s formulation was preposterous, but it was a good example of how the U.S. handles coups when it doesn’t want to treat them as coups: simply pretend that they are something else to avoid the potential consequences of calling it what it is.
In an interview last week, Guaidó told me that a military uprising to uphold the constitution was one of the main scenarios for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. The other scenarios he cited were that Maduro would resign under pressure from anti-government demonstrations and foreign military intervention.
Asked about his military uprising scenario, Guaidó told me, “It would be a sui generis transition, much like happened in Venezuela in 1958.” In that instance, he said, “A group of Venezuelan military said, ‘No more!’ ”
On Jan. 23, 1958, members of Venezuela’s armed forces toppled dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. A transition government took office and held democratic elections that December, which President Rómulo Betancourt won. To this day, a huge Caracas neighborhood, Barrio 23 de Enero, is named after the day of Perez Jimenez’s ouster.
As we can see in Oppenheimer’s column, there seems to be basic confusion about what a coup is and is not. Oppenheimer points to Maduro’s power grabs as proof that he is a dictator, but it is often the case that a coup happens when a leader displays authoritarian and lawless behavior that the military officers cite as their justification for taking the extraordinary step of removing him from power. The target of a coup is usually a dictator or a leader who aspires to become one. His status as a dictatorial ruler doesn’t make it less of a coup when he is overthrown. Dictators are often preoccupied with “coup-proofing” their regimes precisely because they know authoritarian rulers are the most frequently targeted by coups. Calling for the military to intervene in politics is usually something that political actors do only in situations where every other check on the government has failed, because everyone is aware that once you call upon the military to come out of the barracks to remove a government it is not always so easy to get them to return to them. Guaido’s “sui generis transition” is just a euphemism for this. He is using the example of another Venezuelan coup as a template for what he wants to see happen, but it is somehow outrageous distortion to call that a coup. We should not try to deny the obvious because it is politically inconvenient for the cause of regime change.
We have seen a similar effort to police the language used in news coverage of foreign conflicts. Interventionists always get annoyed when a conflict is described as a civil war, because they think that discourages people from wanting to get involved. Even when there are competing armed groups of people from the same country fighting over who will control state institutions, calling it a civil war doesn’t fit the narrative that interventionists want to use and so they attack using the correct terminology because it makes it harder for them to sell their case for war. Others don’t like the civil war label even when it is completely accurate (e.g., in Syria) because they fear that lends “legitimacy” to the current government.
The real problem for supporters of regime change in Venezuela is not that journalists and critics of administration policy are correctly describing the attempted military overthrow of Venezuela’s government as a coup, but that the attempted coup was so poorly organized and failed almost immediately.