What the Media Won’t Tell You About the Venezuelan Coup

The coup that is unfolding in Venezuela is not an American backed coup: it is an American coup. Mainstream media coverage paints the events only as American recognition of a legitimate constitutional correction of government. Even in the left wing and alternative media, where writers condemn the American intervention, many of them feel the need to establish their credibility by conceding that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is an authoritarian leader, or even a dictator, who won a second term in office in elections that were illegitimate.

The typical media account of the story holds that Juan Guaidó, who was elected president of the National Assembly in December, has been declared interim president on the grounds that Maduro is a dictator whose election was illegitimate. Each component of that sentence is false.

Maduro Won an Illegitimate Election

This claim has little to do with this election: it is the first song in the Venezuelan coup song book. It has been sung in every election since Hugo Chavez won power from the Venezuelan elite and returned it to the people.

When Maduro won his first election after the death of Chavez, monitors from around the world certified the election as fair. America was the only country in the world to back opposition claims of fraud and to refuse to recognize the Maduro government. The election was certified as fair by no less than 150 electoral monitors from around the world. Delegates came from the Union of South American Nations and the Carter Center. Carter had previously called Venezuela’s election process "the best in the world." An American human rights lawyer and election observer reported that "What we found was a transparent, reliable, well-run and thoroughly audited electoral system."

Maduro’s opponent, Henrique Capriles, demanded an audit, not only of the automatically audited 54% of voting machines (an audit that found no problems), but of all of them. Even though Maduro said that he was open to the 100% audit, Capriles called on his supporters to take to the streets. The U.S. State Department backed his call for an audit. But, despite his call to the streets, Capriles never actually filed his legal challenge: when the Election Council agreed to audit the remaining machines, Capriles called off his protest.

In the recent election that is now in question, the claim is not that Maduro’s opponent, Henri Falcón, won more votes: he didn’t. The claim is that the election is illegitimate because the turnout was so low. But the turnout was low because the radical opposition boycotted the election and encouraged their supporters not to vote. Maduro had initiated a series of negotiations with the opposition that were mediated by the Dominican Republic and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. During the negotiations, an election date was agreed upon. But at the last minute before the agreement was to be signed, the opposition withdrew and refused to sign. Rodriguez Zapatero criticized the opposition’s decision, saying he did not agree with the decision and was shocked by it. The opposition, with the exception of Falcon, decided to boycott the election, resulting in the low turnout.

The boycott was strategic. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College, and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, told me in a personal correspondence that "the opposition opted to abandon the electoral arena in the country and adopted the strategy of international pressure to oust Maduro. That is why they would not sign the negotiated agreement brokered last year by Jose Luis Zapatero that would have defused the current crisis." The crisis could have been peacefully and constitutionally defused, but the radical opposition preferred their chances with international pressure – the current situation – than with elections. It is also possible that the decision was not a wholly autonomous, independent one. The Venezuela government has accused the US of pressuring the opposition to withdraw from the election agreement in favor of regime change. Jose Rodriguez, Venezuela’s communications minister and the government’s representative to the negotiations, says that then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the opposition’s spokesperson, Julio Borges, and instructed him to refuse to sign the agreement.

Despite the radical opposition boycott, Henri Falcon launched what Miguel Tinker Salas called "a legitimate candidacy that could confront Maduro." There was a real election between Maduro and the moderate opposition. The radical opposition, Tinker Salas told me, boycotted the election "in order to claim that Maduro lacked legitimacy." But there was a legitimate opposition. And, he added, "the opposition could nonetheless have mounted a full-fledged campaign and challenged Maduro had they opted to participate in the electoral arena."

So, the claim that the low turnout renders the election illegitimate is a disingenuous one because that was the intent of the boycott. And, despite the boycott, Falcon’s candidacy offered the electorate a real choice between Maduro and the opposition. And, though the turnout was low for a Venezuelan election, Maduro still won 31% of all eligible voters: not actual voters but eligible voters. That is better than Trump managed in 2016 or Obama in 2012.

So, the claim that Maduro’s election is illegitimate is a very weak one. And, to the extent there is a claim at all, it is the fault, and worse, the plan, of the opposition.

Maduro is a Dictator

Like the election charge, this charge has little to do with Maduro or the current situation. It is another traditional song in the Venezuelan opposition’s song book. The Venezuelan opposition and its American partners have consistently accused, not only Maduro, but Chávez before him, of being a dictator. The charge is unfair.

Chávez was elected four times to majority governments. Chávez held at least fourteen national elections and referendums, taking his policies to the people for approval an average of once a year. In every case, Chávez honored the will of the people: even the one time that he lost, by the slimmest of margins, in the December 2007 referendum. Under Chávez, Venezuela had very high ratings of satisfaction with its democracy and of support for its government. Hardly a dictatorship.

And it’s hard to see what’s new since the last election. The charges that keep getting recycled are that Maduro has barred his opposition from running and that he dissolved the National Assembly.

But the opponents who were barred from running were barred for participating in an attempted coup against the government, for inciting violence or for campaign cheating: crimes which would surely not be tolerated in any democracy. Several other opposition leaders opted not to run in favor of boycotting, and Falcon did run and had the ability to mount a legitimate candidacy.

That leaves the charge of dissolving the National Assembly after losing control of it to the opposition in the 2015 elections. But the National Assembly was only dissolved after it was declared to be incapacitated and in contempt according to the constitution by the Supreme Court of Justice. The judiciary stepped in to temporarily take its place. The Legislative Assembly can resurrect itself by remedying its incapacitation and contempt. Since the coup, Maduro has also clearly stated that he is willing to address the incapacitation and face the people in new National Assembly elections.

An American Coup

Juan Guaidó assumed power on the grounds that, since Maduro was a dictator who had held onto power through an illegitimate election, it was incumbent on him, as the elected president the National Assembly, to declare himself the interim president. Since Maduro is not a dictator and since the election was not illegitimate, that leaves only that Maduro had vacated the office of President. And that is in no way the case.

Guaidó is presented by the opposition, by America and its allies, and by the media as the elected President of the National Assembly and, therefore, as the legitimate representative of the people. But Guaidó was not elected President of the National Assembly. The four opposition parties that control the National Assembly agreed to establish a rotating presidency. It was merely Guaidó’s party’s turn. But it wasn’t Guaidó’s turn. He wasn’t even supposed to get a turn. There were at least three people ahead of him in his own party to serve as President of the Assembly. But they were all under arrest, had fled the country or unavailable. So, a mid-level back bencher assumed the presidency. He was not elected. He did not represent the people. Before his announced assumption of power, 81% of Venezuelans had never heard of him. He was elected to the Assembly with only a 26% vote. Furthermore, the assembly of which he is the unelected leader enjoys a disapproval rating of 70%.

Though Guaidó is not the chosen leader of the Venezuelan people, he is the chosen leader of the Americans. Though Venezuelans do not know him, the Americans have long known, and perhaps even groomed, him, according to reporting by Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal. His declaration of power was a coup that was closely coordinated with Washington. The coordination took place over several weeks in secret talks that involved US officials, Guaidó, American lawmakers and other important Venezuelan opposition figures. The talks culminated in a phone call from Vice President Mike Pence to Guaidó the night before he declared himself the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, encouraging him to take over the government. Pence pledged that Washington would back him "if he seized the reins of government from Nicolás Maduro." As promised, Trump issued a statement recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader the instant the seizing of power was announced.

But the secret coup plotting actually went back much earlier than that. According to The New York Times, "The Trump administration held secret meetings with rebellious military officers from Venezuela over the last year to discuss their plans to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro."

The Trump administration was not only secretly preparing the coup, it was also secretly preparing the region’s response to the coup. In December 2018, Guaidó snuck into Washington, Columbia and Brazil to update those right wing governments on the strategy of the Venezuelan opposition. Several weeks of secret discussions then firmed up the coalition of right wing Latin American and North American countries that would immediately recognize Guaidó.

The announcement was then timed to coincide with January 23rd anniversary of the elimination of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship in 1958. The announcement was orchestrated with this annual event because Venezuelans of both sides of the political divide traditionally take to the streets on that day. The media coverage could then be manipulated to make it look to the world that the opposition demonstrations were in support of Guaidó and the removal of Maduro. In reality, since that day there have also been pro-Chavez counter protests on the streets of Venezuela, but the media has turned the lens away from them and focussed only on the opposition protests to present a distorted picture of the Venezuelan street to the world.

This strategy and the media representation of Guaidó as the representative of the people presents the world with a picture of a Venezuelan populace that supports the American coup. But even the moderate opposition in Venezuela has not endorsed Guaidó as interim president. Before the coup, 81% of Venezuelans said they disagree with US sanctions and 86% said they oppose military intervention. Both the recognition of Guaidó and the sanctions that support him are illegal under US law and the rules of the Organization of American States and the United Nations as well as other international treaties to which the US is a signatory.

Nothing New

This too is nothing new. Though presented as a coup against the authoritarianism and illegitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, the coup has nothing to do with Maduro or the current situation. It is the long standing policy and practice of the United States in Venezuela.

A previous Venezuelan president with left leaning politics who clashed with conservatives and governed as a nationalist who was concerned with American power and influence in Latin America was also taken out of power with US assistance. The coup leaders consulted with the United States for some time in preparation for the coup. When the leader of the coup declared himself president, the US, as in the present case, quickly recognized him and blocked efforts of the elected president to return. The US was a strong partner in the coup and, on several occasions, dispatched the navy and American diplomats as a demonstration of support to the coup government.

If you think that the above story is the story of Hugo Chávez, then you underestimate American interventionism in Latin America. This story took place in 1908 when American helped Juan Vicente Gómez to oust Cipriano Castro in a coup and to rule Venezuela as a strongman for the next twenty-seven years.

Chavez’ story takes place over a century later. In 2002, Hugo Chávez was briefly removed from office in a coup before the people and the military restored the popular leader to power. That story is well known. What is less well known, because discussions of the coup seldom include this detail, is that as early as April 17, 2002, it had already been revealed that "Bush administration officials acknowledged . . . that they had discussed the removal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for months with military and civilian leaders from Venezuela." The present case is not about Maduro. There is a consistent history of America trying to regain control of the political workings in Venezuela.

Days after that revelation, it was reported that the Bush administration’s backing of the coup did not begin with its endorsement of the coup government. Following the same script as today’s coup, officials of the Organisation of American States confirmed that the Bush administration "was not only aware the coup was about to take place, but had sanctioned it." Washington’s meetings with Venezuelan plotters included "a number of meetings" with coup leader Pedro Carmona himself. They began several months before the coup. Another coup plotter who met with Washington, Vice Admiral Carlos Molina, said "We felt we were acting with U.S. support". Details right down to the timing of the coup were discussed. The State Department would eventually admit that the Bush administration "provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the military coup."

Maduro, himself, accused the U.S. in 2015 of being involved in a prior failed coup attempt against him. Venezuela also claimed that Canada had links to that coup attempt. Today too, Canada has been quick to recognize and support the coup government. As evidence of American involvement, Venezuelan officials produced a recording of a communique to be issued after the Maduro government had ben removed from power as well as confessions by military officials and a recorded phone conversation between opposition leaders discussing the coup. Caracas mayor, Antonio Ledezma is known to have made phone calls to a U.S. number. The day before the planned coup, he, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, both leaders of a previous attempt to remove Maduro from power, signed a National Transition Agreement. Weapons were also found in the office of the opposition party. It has been reported that a number of the coup leaders obtained U.S. visas from the American embassy to facilitate escape should the coup fail.

So, when it is claimed that a change of government in Venezuela has been necessitated by the specific actions of Nicolás Maduro, it is not true. Maduro’s election was not illegitimate, he is not a dictator and he has not vacated the office of president. The current coup is merely the next act in a very long American play that takes place in Venezuela.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.