Jan 31, 2019

2. Coups are becoming a thing of the past

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Data: Powell and Thyne, 2019, "Coups d'état, 1950 to Present"; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

The world is waiting to see if the Venezuelan military will make a move to depose Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro as pressure from the streets and from foreign capitals grows. If it happens, it would be a truly anomalous event.

The big picture: Coups are becoming far rarer — particularly in Latin America, where there hasn't even been an attempt in nearly a decade, according to data compiled by Jonathan Powell of the University of Central Florida and Clayton Thyne of the University of Kentucky.

Driving the news: Two men now claim to be Venezuela’s president: Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader whose rationale is that Maduro lacks a democratic mandate and he is next in the line of succession. Guaidó's claim is backed by the U.S. and more than 20 other countries.

  • The kingmaker here is the military. Simply naming oneself president does not constitute a coup, Thyne says. But if the military brass ultimately sides with Guaidó and removes Maduro by force, that would qualify.
  • “We’re looking at who did what to whom,” Thyne says of determining what is and is not a coup. “The ‘who’ has to be an elite member of the state apparatus, oftentimes a general. The ‘what’ has to be an overt attempt to seize power illegally.”

“Coups have become almost extinct in Latin America since the end of the Cold War,” Powell says. They’re becoming extremely rare in Africa as well.

Three reasons:

  1. The end of the Cold War meant not only that global powers were less likely to be actively fomenting coups, he says, but also that would-be coup plotters couldn’t bank on assistance after taking power.
  2. Democratic and economic development changed the calculus. “Coups are expensive, they’re dangerous,” Thyne says. “Particularly if you can just wait for the next election.”
  3. International organizations like the Organization of American States and the African Union have “set strong precedents that this stuff is not going to be tolerated,” Powell says.

The bottom line: The days of opportunistic military officers making a play for power seem to have come to an end. “I think what we’re going to see is that the coups that happen have a pretty strong argument behind them — look at the recent ones in Egypt, Honduras, Venezuela, Zimbabwe — so that the international backlash is limited,” says Thyne.

What to watch: Those extreme circumstances typically involve an economic collapse, or crisis of legitimacy. “Coups have obviously become extremely rare, particularly in Latin America. But Venezuela has a lot of the conditions we’d expect if a coup were going to occur,” says Powell.

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