Zack Blumberg: Where does Venezuela go? Look at the past to find out

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 6:00pm

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The Michigan Daily

After several years of growing unrest and widespread protests, tensions in Venezuela finally boiled over at the start of this year. To begin, the immensely unpopular president Nicolas Maduro was re-elected in 2018 through an allegedly rigged vote. In the wake of his 2019 inauguration, the National Assembly of Venezuela, believing Maduro’s election to be illegitimate, invoked articles 233, 333 and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution, allowing them to render the presidential position empty and confirm Juan Guaidó instead, setting the stage for a dramatic battle over presidential authority. While there has been an outpouring of support for Guaidó in the weeks since his confirmation, not many concrete changes have occured, leaving Venezuela in a state of great uncertainty going forward.

In a situation with so much up in the air, looking at similar situations from recent history can be the best way to try and determine what comes next. Thanks to several key factors, including military backing, the role of foreign intervention, and how far leaders are willing to go to stay in power, recent uprisings have had three distinct outcomes: transitions of leadership with government reforms, increased oppression and a greater concentration of power, or civil war.

For Venezuela, the ideal outcome is a relatively orderly transition which ends with Maduro conceding power to Guaidó without violence. While this is far from guaranteed, there is still some historical evidence it is possible. In 2011, Tunisian citizens launched massive protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a revolution which bears similarities to the situation in Venezuela today. Similar to Maduro, Ben Ali faced protests fueled by economic instability and allegations of corruption (Ben Ali had been in office for more than 20 years, routinely threw dissenters in jail, and often won elections with more than 90 percent of the vote).

Facing nationwide protests, Ben Ali was ultimately overwhelmed and fled to Saudi Arabia in January. In October 2011, the country held free elections, and while Tunisia still has many issues to work though, the 2011 transition has undeniably improved Tunisian politics. Crucially, the military showed relative restraint during the protests, which was a crucial component of the revolution's success. In Venezuela today, the military still backs Maduro, though one high-ranking official has already declared support for Guaidó. Additionally, as protests go on, there are reasons for the military to flip.

Maduro cannot rely on issues like racial identity to keep the army behind him, as some leaders like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been able to do. Maduro must also be wary of foreign intervention, especially from the United States, where remnants of Cold War anti-leftist sentiment make Venezuela a target.

While examples like Ben Ali’s overthrow in Tunisia provide hope, a positive outcome is far from assured. An uprising could also be quelled, allowing Maduro to remain in power without conceding anything to his opposition. For example, protests erupted in Bahrain in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. The country’s Shia majority wanted equality and greater political freedom. In response to the uprising, the Sunni king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, used Saudi Arabian troops to brutally suppress the protests, even killing several people. After declaring martial law and a state of emergency, Hamad remained in power, squashing the chance for a regime change.

The most prominent recent example of an uprising backfiring in this manner was in Turkey in 2016, when a small faction from the Turkish military, known as the Peace at Home Council, attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In response to the uprising, Erdoğan’s regime arrested more than 40,000 people and labeled a leading critic of Erdoğan, Fethullah Gülen, a terrorist.

While the Bahraini uprising is obviously not identical to Venezuela, Hamad and Maduro have one commonality which helps strengthen established regimes: They are willing to greatly infringe upon citizens’ rights to maintain their power. In addition to the army, Maduro is also backed by the Special Actions Force, or FAES, a group of largely untrained government loyalists who have no reservations about attacking or even outright killing dissenters. In the long term, a relatively small force of untrained radicals is not enough military support to sustain power, so it is important for Maduro to retain the support of the military if he wants to stay in power.

Looking beyond the violence, Maduro could also spin foreign support of Guiadó into an “us-against-them” narrative to try and create national unity. Additionally, Maduro has been accused of corruption several times, and it is important to consider there may be high-ranking government officials involved who would actively benefit from Maduro retaining power.

Ultimately though, while Erdogan may have been able to spin his attempted overthrow into increased authority, there is no guarantee it would be as effective for Maduro. The protests in Turkey had nowhere near the popular support Guiadó has, and many foreign governments condemned the uprising, saying they felt it disrespected democratic institutions in Turkey. While violent repression of protests is often effective when support for the opposition is limited, using violence against huge masses of people is often an exercise in futile cruelty which does little but draw international ire.

Using violence against large groups of people may be an exercise in futile cruelty, but it doesn’t mean it's never been done before — sadly, it leads to the third outcome of popular uprisings: civil war. On a simplistic level, the most notable contemporary civil wars, fought in Syria and Yemen, both began when massive anti-government movements were met with widespread violence. In Syria, people flooded the streets to show their opposition to Bashar al-Assad as part of the Arab Spring in 2011. Assad refused to back down and responded with incredible violence against his own citizens, leading to a civil war that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

In Yemen, the Houthi movement, which supports former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and refuse to recognize the authority of current President Abd Mansur Hadi, violently took the capital city of Sana‘a in 2015, leading to an ongoing civil war. Thankfully, it is extremely unlikely the dispute in Venezuela will spiral into anything as violent as the wars in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, Assad has violated human rights to a truly extreme degree.

While Maduro may use some violence against dissenters, Assad’s extreme measures are an outlier, and not representative of how most leaders handle uprisings. In Yemen, the rebel Houthi movement is comprised of armed attackers, not peaceful protesters, and the conflict has worsened by attacks from terrorist groups like ISIS, as well as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran all using it as a proxy war. Venezuelan opposition has, thankfully, been peaceful, so escalation into a military civil war is extremely unlikely.  

To conclude, it’s remarkable how profoundly the next few months could shape the future of Venezuela. There are still a great number of questions left to answer, leaving the world with nothing to do but speculate and hope for the best. Thankfully, it is unlikely Venezuela will go down the path of bloody civil war. However, who is ultimately able to retain power is still unknown. Hopefully, the situation concludes peacefully and Venezuela can move forward once again.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu