I woke up thinking it was going to be a relaxing Sunday. But when you’re from Venezuela, there’s always a cloud of uncertainty about the future of my country and the safety of family and friends. The assault on the Fort Paramacay military base in the Northcentral state of Carabobo highlights the seriousness of the political crisis in Venezuela and the uncertainty in which we live—even those of us who live abroad.
The assault (called Operation David) was carried out by a group of disaffected, middle-ranking ex-military officers under the command of ex National Guard Capitan Juan Caguaripano. He explained in a video released as the raid was taking place that the action was not a coup but an attempt to restore constitutional order in the country. The group of self-described “institutional military men” recognized the authority of the National Assembly and called for “the formation of a transitional government and free general elections.” To legitimate his actions, Caguaripano alluded to article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution. The article states that the people can delegitimize “any regime, legislation or authority that contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees or undermines human rights.” Despite Caguaripano’s statement in favor of democracy, the Paramacay incident points to two troublesome scenarios: that the only way to bring political change is through military action and that an armed conflict may be coming.
President Nicolás Maduro’s control of the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Counsel and the military high command has left the opposition-controlled National Assembly virtually paralyzed. Every action the Assembly has taken since the opposition took over the legislative body in early 2016 has been overruled by the Venezuelan Supreme Court. The installation of the Constituent Assembly on August 4 has left the National Assembly with little to no power. On Tuesday, the National Guard even prevented representatives from entering the Legislative Palace. The only action the opposition has been able to take is to call for marches and protests against Maduro’s power grab. Four months of street protests and marches have not stopped the government from carrying out their plans to officially strip the National Assembly of its powers and write a new constitution. Instead, the protests have resulted in the deaths of dozens of people at the hands of security forces and colectivos and the arbitrary detention of thousands of people according to findings from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Venezuelans are tired, desperate and losing hope. Fatigue and desperation are setting in. This explains why people in the neighborhood around Fort Paramacay came out to the street to support the attack on the military base. There were also expressions of support for the assault in social media. Faced with the impotence of the National Assembly, the other government branches’ loyalty to Maduro and the ineffectiveness of U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan government officials, it seems that the only institution that can restore democracy in the country is the military.
To be clear, any political (i.e., civilian) measure to force Maduro and the chavista leadership to step down will require the acquiescence of the military. Yet, a military solution to the political crisis is problematic. Venezuelan military expert and director of the nongovernmental organization Control Ciudadano (Citizen Control), Rocío San Miguel, explained that the military high command is loyal to Maduro. Additionally, the attack on Fort Paramacay and Caguaripano’s video pronouncement did not provoke an immediate insurrection within the military as he may have been expecting.
Even if Caguaripano begins to gain support in some sectors of the military in the coming months, a move by middle-ranking officers to force a change of government presents a danger for the future of democracy. Furthermore, San Miguel believes a “classic coup” is not the best way to bring back the military into society. Historical precedent, however, is in favor of this measure. The last Venezuelan dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, was toppled in part by a military rebellion in 1958. A period of democratic rule followed that lasted until Maduro’s dictatorial measures of recent years. If he stays true to his words, a return to democratic rule could be the outcome if Caguaripano succeeds. Nevertheless, it is not clear that a military uprising will result in a return to democracy. It is very easy for a military-led transitional government to become a permanent military government. This is the last thing Venezuelans want. It would also be a betrayal of what people have been fighting for in the streets for the last several months.
After Sunday’s assault, Venezuelans now have to face the possibility of armed confrontations between Caguaripano’s band of ex-military officers and the armed forces loyal to Maduro. The government acknowledged that Caguaripano escaped with weapons and ammunition from Fort Paramacay, which stores one of the military’s largest arsenals. This has led people to believe that the goal of the operation was to obtain weapons to carry out future attacks.
The idea of seeing my country plunge into a prolonged civil war is—needless to say—terrifying. People are already in a precarious situation. The economy is in shambles. There are shortages of food and medicine. There are hundreds of political prisoners. The country is slipping further and further into a more repressive dictatorial regime. After the Paramacay incident, the government has an excuse to persecute political opponents more intensely and to purge the military from people who show even a whiff of disloyalty to Maduro. An armed conflict will make the situation worse. It will create more shortages, more repression and more persecution.
We are desperate for change. When all the other institutions have failed or are constrained, military actions seems to be the only way forward. It offers the promise of a quick remedy to the political impasse. It also offers the frightening possibility of a military dictatorship or a prolonged armed conflict. As hopeful as Sunday’s events may make us feel that change is coming, we have to be aware that a return to democracy may not be the outcome.