on geopolitics

May 8, 2019 | 23:09 GMT

9 mins read

Why Do Coups Fail? One Simple Question Holds the Answer

This photo shows Venezuelan troops supporting interim President Juan Guaido's call for a military uprising against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on April 30, 2019.
  • The stumbling blocks that doomed both the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and a recent effort in Venezuela were as different as their geopolitical situations. But both cases illustrate the challenges that coup plotters face in securing the tacit commitment of key stakeholders.
  • Regardless of country-specific conditions, a major snag for those who wish to organize coups is convincing necessary parties, such as commanders in the armed forces, to put their necks on the line.
  • The need for secrecy among coup conspirators to prevent their plans from either being disrupted or drawing a government response can create uncertainty among participants until the very end.

On April 30, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, the country's internationally backed interim president, beseeched the country's military to join him and rise up against the sitting government, leading many observers to trumpet the apparent start of a coup. While Guaido's initial call and footage of street protesters clashing with security forces in Caracas dominated the global media news cycle, his push to topple President Nicolas Maduro stalled.

So why didn't Guaido's hoped-for uprising not materialize? The ingredients for regime change in Venezuela, whose oil-dependent economy, wracked by hyperinflation, has suffered for years under declining production, seem to be in place. But even as Guaido appeared among uniformed members of the National Guard last week and announced the final phase of what he called "Operacion Libertad," what followed instead was a day of waiting.

The world stood by to see what Guaido's next move would be, only to see him waiting for others to make moves to fulfill his plans. And at the end of the day, for all of the attention his attempt to force out Maduro garnered, Venezuela's political leadership remained unchanged. A look at the failed coup attempt three years ago in Turkey — and an understanding of human nature — illustrate the reasons the Venezuela push may have fallen short.

The Big Picture

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on April 30 triggered what he called "Operation Liberty," an attempt to engage dissident military units to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro. His efforts to rally the troops, however, were not enough to materialize regime change. The difficulties of organizing a successful coup in Venezuela highlight the challenges of such radical attempts to reshape geopolitics, sharing common parallels with other failed coups in history, such as the 2016 attempt in Turkey.

As the group of National Guard soldiers supporting Guaido set up machine gun positions on a highway bridge near the La Carlota air base in Caracas, the chaotic atmosphere mirrored events of July 15, 2016, when an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan entered the global consciousness in a strikingly similar manner: with soldiers setting up roadblocks on a bridge, albeit this one spanning the Bosporus in Istanbul. Although that attempt to topple the civilian government also ultimately failed, it evolved quite differently. What we've learned about how the plot in Turkey was organized, and how that compares to the Venezuelan situation, provides some insight into the inherent nature of coups.

In Turkey the failure of the coup was closely tied to the actors who conducted it — a minority Islamist faction within the traditionally secularist Turkish military who had broken with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. The strictly internal dynamics at play in the Turkish coup attempt made forecasting its eventual demise simpler than the situation in Venezuela, where considerably more variables, including foreign influences, must be factored in.

Among the moving parts to consider when examining Venezuela's political situation are questions over the role of Cuban security services in backing Maduro's government, the potential for Russian involvement to counter a possible U.S. military intervention, and what role regional powers such as Colombia and Brazil could fill. Also included in the mix are the significant internal hurdles that Guaido must overcome to drive a successful coup in Venezuela, the biggest of which are the dilemmas over amnesty and possible extradition of military officers. His inability to guarantee that those who switch sides to support him won't later become targets of corruption charges or face extradition to the United States has raised a barrier to action.

Often, the fate of a coup attempt boils down to the answer to a single question: "Are you in, or are you out?"

Based on the observation of events in Venezuela — and assuming the accuracy of reports in the local media and in the official U.S. account — it was precisely the lack of action by military leaders who initially had agreed to throw their support behind Guaido that made his coup attempt fail. To some degree, actions taken early in the failed Turkish coup demonstrated evidence of a similar conundrum. Although dissident troops flooded the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, successfully seizing key infrastructure and communications channels, later accounts of the messages exchanged among the conspirators showed a similar hesitance to act. In the early hours of the Turkish coup, as some commanders worked to convince their troops to take part, others sought reassurance that their co-conspirators were indeed executing the plan.

It Comes Down to One Question

When looking at what makes coups succeed or fail, the key factor often comes down to individual psychology. An element of human emotion and personal judgment plays a major role in the organization of a coup, and the stakes that makes coup attempts so treacherous for their organizers makes their outcomes incredibly difficult for analysts to forecast. From the perspective of geopolitical analysis, understanding global events at a more mechanical level — based on the operation of systems, whether hierarchical structures, states, or entire populations — is much simpler than calculating the potential reactions of individuals. A coup, which by definition is a course of action that deviates from the normal operation of a system, is an outlier because its outcome depends a great deal on individual actions. Often, fate of a coup attempt boils down to the answer to a single question: "Are you in, or are you out?"

Such a seemingly simple proposition carries a plethora of consequences. In and of itself, the question gauges a potential co-conspirator's level of conviction or allegiance, but for all practical purposes it also provides insight into their perception of the chances for a coup's success. After all, regardless of which side an officer chooses, ending up on the wrong side of a coup would leave him or her looking at gloomy career prospects — at the very least. Of course, participants on the losing side could easily end up in a prison cell or even dead. That stark choice means that for the Venezuelan and Turkish commanders alike, their decision to take part in a coup attempt would be defined more by their expectations of its success than their own ideological motivations. The fairly simple question thus is where the mind games begin.

The organizers of a coup want to avoid detection of the plot until the time comes to implement it. In the Turkish coup plot, for instance, only a select group of commanders was in on the plan. As the day of the coup arrived, their first mission was to convince their subordinates to come on board. Achieving sufficient operational security in a coup plot means that you can't share the entire plan with everyone involved, or even discuss it openly in a way that would instill faith in its success in those taking part. Those approached to join likely would not even be told who else is involved. The necessary limits on the information available means that those invited to join are essentially being asked to take a leap of faith. People might throw in their lot based on the level of personal trust they have with those trying to convince them, but trust goes only so far.

A Game of Emotional Chicken

Beyond trust, commanders considering whether to act after a military coup is initiated are more likely to base their own actions on the observed actions of others. In this way, the actual kickoff of a coup can be likened to a game of emotional "chicken." In Turkey, that game played out in the form of queries from commanders asking "Where is this unit? Are they still coming?" or "Are you sure they have left their base?" In Venezuela, the outcome of that game became apparent by observing the indecisiveness of Guaido's protest group. Their hesitancy seemed to be similar to that exhibited by someone expecting a friend who never shows up. Nobody wants to pass the point of no return unless they see others joining them, but that means someone has to go first. Guaido's National Guard escort may have been intended to boost the perception that some forces had crossed that bright line, making it safe to join them, but their numbers were likely too small to project an image of wide support. As a coup attempt begins to unfold, especially, when there is uncertainty about the level of support, all involved are watching the actions of others. As the hours tick away with scant initiation of action, it becomes more likely that those on the fence will choose to pretend nothing's happening and live to fight another day.

But once a coup attempt fails, the chances that another try will be made shrink, however, as each failure exponentially raises the risk for a follow-up. The breached trust of those involved in the plot will be difficult to restore, assuming, that is, that they are not subsequently purged by the regime surviving the threat. Furthermore, recruiting new conspirators will more difficult. On top of that, increased awareness and caution within the regime would likely make it harder for future coup plotters to maintain operational security.

Although in the Turkish coup attempt a number of commanders and units took the leap of faith, they fell short of the critical mass needed to overthrow the government. And the government actions that followed in the aftermath of the failure virtually assured that no future action would be seriously contemplated. While participation in the military uprising in Venezuela was negligible, and there has yet to be a significant crackdown against possible conspirators within the ranks of the military, the failure of Guaido's attempt raises the same doubts over the potential for his success in the future.

As an exceptional event, coup attempts draw from exceptional momentum. Considering the immense challenges in successfully organizing and executing a forced change of government, re-creating the conditions that could lead to success more often than not proves impossible.

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