Military rebellion in Venezuela can be called many things, but don’t call it a “coup attempt,” because it’s not

A woman cheers on soldiers outside La Carlota military air base who have turned against Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro.
A woman cheers on soldiers outside La Carlota military air base who have turned against Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro. AP

When Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaidó announced a military uprising this morning, Venezuela’s dictatorship quickly branded it a “coup attempt.” But as Guaidó told me in an extended interview last week, there are several reasons why a rebellion against an unconstitutional regime can’t be called a “coup.”

Remember these facts when describing what happened in Caracas Tuesday morning, when Guaidó and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez — whom sympathetic soldiers freed from house arrest at dawn — went to a military base and declared the “final phase” of their effort to topple de facto president Nicolás Maduro:

First, Maduro became a full-blown dictator in January 2016, when he stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Venezuela’s congress, of virtually all powers. In December 2015, the opposition won legislative elections by a landslide, despite Maduro’s use of massive state resources and press censorship to support his candidates.

Second, Maduro single-handedly stacked the National Electoral Council with cronies to prevent future opposition election victories. The new government-backed electoral body convened a sham election and created a substitute congress with hand-picked legislators, called the Constituent Assembly. In other words, Maduro usurped the constitutional powers of congress and created his own legislative power.

Third, Maduro re-elected himself to a new term in a fraudulent May 20 election, without allowing any credible international observers and after banning Venezuela’s top opposition leaders from running against him.

Fourth, Maduro illegally proclaimed himself president for a new full term in office on Jan. 10, 2019, despite international warnings that such a move would be unconstitutional.

Almost immediately, more than 50 world democracies — including the United States, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and virtually all 28 members of the European Union — declared Maduro an illegitimate president and recognized National Assembly leader Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim leader, in charge of convening new elections.

In an interview last week, Guaidó told me that a military uprising to uphold the constitution was one of the main scenarios for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. The other scenarios he cited were that Maduro would resign under pressure from anti-government demonstrations and foreign military intervention.

Asked about his military uprising scenario, Guaidó told me, “It would be a sui generis transition, much like happened in Venezuela in 1958.” In that instance, he said, “A group of Venezuelan military said, ‘No more!’ ”

On Jan. 23, 1958, members of Venezuela’s armed forces toppled dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. A transition government took office and held democratic elections that December, which President Romulo Bentancourt won. To this day, a huge Caracas neighborhood, Barrio 23 de Enero, is named after the day of Perez Jimenez’s ouster.

In the interview, Guaidó said he did not rule out “foreign backing or cooperation” to oust Maduro’s illegitimate regime. Asked whether that would not amount to a foreign intervention that would give propaganda ammunition to Maduro’s supporters, Guaidó told me — referring to the presence of Russian and Cuban military — “There is already a foreign intervention” in the country.

Guaidó said that Maduro “has often denounced (U.S.) interference and intervention, but it turned out that it has been Maduro who has facilitated not only the arrival of these two (Russian military) planes, but also the Cuban presence in intelligence and counter-intelligence activities.”

Two Russian military planes landed in Venezuela on March 24, carrying about 100 military personnel and 35 tons of their equipment. “It’s very serious, because foreign military aircraft arrived in Venezuelan soil without authorization from parliament, which is the only one that can authorize foreign military missions of any shape or rank in Venezuela,” Guaidó told me, referring to the National Assembly.

Asked how many Cubans he thinks are in his country, Guaidó said that their number has varied between 20,000 and 40,000, “including between 2,000 and 2,500 who are exclusively assigned to track and persecute” members of Venezuela’s armed forces.

About Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s “neutrality” in Venezuela’s political crisis, Guaidó said that, “We expect more” from Mexico. He added that although Mexico “does not want to take a position on whether to support the Venezuelan constitution’s directive” allowing the president of the National Assembly to become interim president in charge of calling new elections, “We would at least expect their support for the cause” of democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

As I’m writing this, it’s not clear whether Guaidó’s military uprising will succeed or whether it will be crushed, its leaders arrested or even killed. But one thing is clear: A military rebellion against a full-blown dictatorship can be called many things, but calling it a “coup attempt” is wrong.