A civilian sacrifice is more likely than a coup in Caracas.
Venezuela’s cartoonish leaders have survived boulders and anvils that would eradicate most governments. For years, inflation, crime and civil discontent have been ubiquitous and yet the revolution soldiers on. This resilience was once attributed to high oil prices and the charisma of the late Hugo Chávez. Both are now gone. And, with President Nicolás Maduro’s successor government floundering, there are whispers of a possible putsch.
Venezuelan presidents have long cried “coup” to justify crackdowns. But serious analysts are joining the speculation. A rash of high-profile military defections and a government broadcast of allegedly recorded subversive chatter among former generals seem to call military loyalties into question. Discontent on the streets is becoming palpable.
Latin America has a penchant for overthrowing its leaders and despite its oil wealth Venezuela has been no exception. The presidential palace has been strafed or bombed by mutinous forces on several occasions. In 1992 Chávez himself participated in one coup (and inspired another), and he was briefly overthrown by a third a decade later. Still, those expecting imminent deliverance from Chávez’s heirs through military intervention may be in for a wait.
Shortly before his death Roman Emperor Septimius Severus advised his heirs: “Enrich the soldiers, and scorn all others.” Caracas has done just that. Subsidised petrol, an arcane multi-tiered foreign exchange system and draconian price controls have together produced a flourishing smuggling industry — exceedingly lucrative for those tasked with guarding national borders. The wish to stay in the military’s good graces may explain why such wastrel policies remain in place, despite the dictates of both logic and necessity.
This “Severus strategy” has been around since Chávez but Mr Maduro has made it more explicit. Lacking El Comandante’s military bona fides, he has sought to do one better on generosity. Today 11 of 23 governorships and eight ministries are run by military personnel or former officers. Venezuela has not gone to war since independence yet even with bankruptcy looming new weaponry is being ordered and military salaries raised. There is even talk of modernising the submarine flotilla.
Another government might order its military to fight Venezuela’s narcotics syndicates or disarm gangs in the barrios. But this one demands only loyalty and the sporadic dispersal of unarmed protesters. It is hard to imagine a better deal for the military from any civilian government, and a military regime would be isolated and unlikely to last.
Military coups in Caracas have taken place when the higher ranks were saturated with presidential allies. Lesser officers, denied the chance of promotion, would launch a coup to clear out the president and the generals at the same time. Yet after 15 years of symbiotic impunity for both military and government — during which time vast oil wealth mysteriously evaporated — a new administration that might ask questions about the past is probably more risk than it is worth.
Severus’ successor, Caracalla, followed his father’s advice and was still murdered by Praetorian guards. Similarly, a palace coup with military backing could empower a different segment of the ruling United Socialist party elite, without risking precious military perks.
Then again, a palace coup might not be necessary. Mr Maduro will be eligible for a recall next year, and there may be good reasons for the party to keep him around until then.
Venezuela’s economic problems have only unpopular solutions, and a gaffe-prone, unpopular lightning rod can be useful. If, in some future crisis — a massacre or mass uprising, say — the government sacrifices Mr Maduro, the party might just buy itself a second chance.