What Awaits Venezuela: A Military Coup or a Civil War?

March 16, 2019

The question is whether a civil war might break out in Venezuela. The possibility of a civil war is higher than that of a military intervention. If the process is not effectively managed and the external support to the opposition continue, which seems very likely, a civil war might break out.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attends a meeting organized by United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), in front of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela on March 10, 2019. Anadolu Agency

The presidential crisis in Venezuela is among the top topics occupying the world agenda. The crisis has reached its apex with the U.S. assigning Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the acting president of the country on January 23, 2019; and tension still prevails in the country with no prospect of getting temperate.

In fact, the debates leading up to the crisis were ignited with the re-election of Nicolás Maduro as the President of Venezuela. Socialist President Maduro was elected for his second 6-year term in presidential office on the election held on May 20, 2018. Although his victory did not reverberate much in the international arena at first, a number of individuals and institutions voiced their objection to the situation. Aside from the Lima Group, which comprises the representatives of 17 Latin American countries who first met in 2017 to resolve the Venezuelan crisis ongoing since 2012, the U.S. and the EU also questioned the legitimacy of the elections and proclaimed that they will not recognize the election results. So, it can be said that the debates that grew and evolved into the current crisis were first ignited at that time.

Considering the course of events, the presidential elections in Venezuela, which is an internal affair of the country in its essence, became a major topic on the global agenda in a short period due to the involvement of global forces and turned into an instrument of power struggle. The debates questioned the legitimacy of the Venezuelan administration under Maduro’s rule and caused polarization regarding which state supports the ruling power and which state does not. Many different aspects of the issue have been approached in visual and printed media. What about Turkey? This piece will focus on Turkey’s approach to the crisis, the possibility of a military coup in Venezuela (probably backed by the U.S.) amid the rapidly changing turn of events, and the country’s future.

A post-modern coup method at work

As the presidency of Donald Trump began in the U.S. in 2017, the U.S. underwent substantial changes in terms of its methods and approaches. This situation has manifested itself in many points within the past two years. The U.S. administration is not very eager to perform its “responsibilities” in other lands stemming from being a global power. This situation can be seen in many instances, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, trade wars, and customs agreements such as NAFTA. Apparently, as much as the country still looks to make the most of the opportunities it enjoys for being the global hegemon, it also adopts a policy that is unwilling to shoulder responsibilities and burden related to the rest of the world.

Of course, this is not solely related to the president’s personal choices; and the clearest thing that can be said  is that the ways of doing things have changed around the world. Things do no longer work out with old, traditional procedures and practices. The countries comprehending this fact adopt new positions and policies that are in line with the new context, which lead to less ambiguity. In the case of the U.S., this new situation was reflected on the implementation of different policies while interfering with the internal affairs of other countries, as seen in the Venezuelan crisis.

The ways of doing things have changed around the world. Things do no longer work out with old, traditional procedures and practices.

Viewing the recent history of Latin America, it is seen that the U.S. played a direct or indirect role in most of the military coups staged in the region so far. Up until the early 2000s, U.S. interests in the continent coincided with military dictatorships in Latin America and therefore the former sustained close relations with junta regimes. So, the U.S. has confronted serious problems and accusations at both national and international levels. The developments in the recent period also hint that the Washington administration is likely to follow a different strategy in the new period. Instead of military sanctions and interventions, it now prefers to impose economic and political sanctions on other countries.

Military interventions have a heavy cost for the American economy. In fact, it does not seem coincidental that the Venezuelan crisis has been discussed in terms of its legitimacy ever since its beginning. This period indicates the legitimacy of all kinds of forces other than military force and hard power. The most common practice of Washington in this new political context is employing the tactic of imposing economic sanctions and interfering with the internal affairs of countries through these sanctions. Undoubtedly, this is not a new tactic as it was used in Africa before and is still being employed in countries like Iran, North Korea, and Russia. This also has a considerable effect on negotiations. In other words, the U.S. is able to strain countries that it targets without attempting large-scale military interventions unlike the past.

Rather than pursuing high-cost military interventions, the U.S. is now able to strain countries that it targets by imposing economic and political sanctions. 

Apparently, the issue of “being recognized as a president” that haunts elected leaders will be a more common phenomenon from now on. It would be useful to look at the Venezuelan crisis through this lens. Accordingly, while it is true that some issues have been experienced in democratic processes and some human rights violations have been observed in the country, although they do not reach a level to undermine the legitimacy of the administration, it is not an ethical policy to intervene in another country’s internal affairs – let it be the U.S. or another country. As much as the role of the ruling power in the persistence of the crisis, the opposition also has a role, since it always relies on foreign powers and therefore sets the ground for military intervention. Consequently, the latest U.S. intervention in Venezuela is overt support to a coup in a post-modern way.

The sole concern of the U.S. in this context is not Venezuela; the superpower rather seeks to send a message to the world. In my opinion, the process run against the Maduro administration is the product of an unsuccessful policy. Every step taken by the U.S. on the matter of Venezuela is actually sustaining the Maduro administration. Without the U.S. intervention, the Venezuelan administration would change with a radical move due to the low oil prices, hyperinflation and serious welfare loss. The Venezuelan people had already lost much of their strength to endure, so the Maduro administration would fall without any intervention.

The latest U.S. intervention in Venezuela is overt support for a coup in a post-modern way. 

Turkey’s stance and effect on the trajectory of the crisis  

Although relations between Turkey and Venezuela do not have a particularly long-standing history, the close relation and increased contact between the two countries leaders have improved economic and political ties in the recent period. Therefore, Turkey has clearly recognized Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and supported him, which has been considered a proper action and a principled decision. This approach is also in line with international law.

Turkey’s approach to the Venezuelan crisis is not solely on the governmental level. The Turkish public have also shown close interest to the subject. The most important factor underlying this interest is the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath in Turkey. Undoubtedly, the Turkish people have encountered difficult times during the past 3 years and this process has not completely ended yet. Although the level of this relation is in the right direction in terms of principles, it would be more appropriate for Turkey to behave more carefully in its support to Maduro. This is due to the fact that, while the chances are low, Turkey needs to consider a Venezuela without Maduro. It is inevitable for Turkish foreign policy makers to come up with alternative scenarios and draw a roadmap that pays attention to Turkey’s interests. Regardless of the premise of international law, the Trump administration has already started threatening countries and institutions that engage in trade activities with the Maduro administration. This is most likely to continue.

Turkey should act as a mediator

The relations established between Turkey and Venezuela in a short span of time should be predicated on equal terms that does not violate the sovereignty of any party. Consequently, Turkey has a serious potential of acting as a mediator in the solution of the issue, thus the country should take on a proactive role in consideration of the trust it enjoys and without needing to wait for the results of the developments. Turkey can contribute to the stability of Venezuela by abstaining from getting involved in the crisis and focusing on the solution.

Ankara can also advise the Maduro administration to act in a more moderate manner in the face of the incidents and foreign provocations, which will help the legitimate government act within the framework of international law.

Of course, these endeavors should not only be limited to the political sphere. As negotiations continue, the urgent needs of the Venezuelan people – such as food, healthcare, hygiene – should also be provided. As is known, the Maduro administration does not accept foreign aid coming from countries that stand against him, as these countries use aid for show casing. Thanks to the positive impression that Turkey has in Venezuela, it is able to deliver humanitarian aid through its various institutions such as the Turkish Red Crescent, Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) as well as a variety of Turkey-based non-governmental organizations. This may also positively affect the mediating talks and avert an illegitimate political or economic intervention on an international scale.

More, Ankara can also advise the Maduro administration to act in a more moderate manner in the face of the incidents and foreign provocations, which will help the legitimate government act within the framework of international law.

What next? Military intervention or civil war?

The first two questions that come to mind in the context of the Venezuelan crisis are whether a military intervention led by the U.S. is tabled, or whether the crisis will evolve into a civil war.

Although the Trump administration (especially Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor John Bolton) insist that a military intervention is being tabled for Venezuela, this is a low possibility due the new global political strategy adopted by the U.S. On the other hand, it will be against the nature of politics to contend that a military intervention is definitely off the table. Supported by the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, this discourse aims to intimidate the Maduro administration.

Aside from heavy costs and its contradiction with international law, the U.S. is avoiding military intervention for three other important reasons. First, is the problem of location. Although the U.S. can exercise military interventions in different corners of the world, it will not prefer to do so when its “backyard” is in question. The U.S. will not want to see the presence of an unstable region in its proximity and cannot afford a possible migration wave caused by it. So, unless the Maduro administration surrenders easily, the U.S. administration will be negatively affected.

Secondly, the U.S. has drawn the support of a substantial number of countries in the continent against the Maduro administration, although only on the political realm. However, as indicated by many analysts, a military intervention will not enjoy the same amount of support. Countries like Brazil and Argentina will probably give no support to such a move. Therefore, the U.S. will not attempt such an act without the approval of Latin American countries, but will increase economic and political oppression in the following period.

Last but not least, such an intervention is not favored by countries like Russia, China and Turkey. This is a significant aspect of the issue in terms of its conformity to international law, since Russia and China are members of the UN Security Council and stand against a possible intervention.

The second question is whether a civil war might break out in Venezuela. It must be noted that the possibility of a civil war is higher than that of a military intervention. If the process is not effectively managed and the external support to the opposition continue, which seems very likely, a civil war might break out. Also, if the options suggested by the U.S. fail, the country will not refrain from igniting a civil war since the situation has turned into a matter of prestige for the Trump administration. The statements issued by the U.S. authorities agree that there is no return. The Venezuelan opposition, which is completely dependent on foreign support, also seems determined in igniting a civil war.

Suleyman Guder is a lecturer at Istanbul University, Faculty of Economics, Political Science and International Relations.