Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela is now under severe threat thanks to a massive popular uprising against his failed economic policies, his re-election in a seemingly rigged campaign, and his restructuring of the government’s institutions to make the democratically elected National Assembly powerless while making himself and his cronies into the rulers of a petty dictatorship. The crisis culminated in the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declaring himself interim president of the country this week, a claim that was quickly recognized by the U.S. and nearly a dozen other countries.
And yet, despite intense opposition, the question remains, how vulnerable is Maduro’s regime to being overthrown? To provide guidance in answering this crucial question, we rely on the theoretical research we and others have done into the factors that increase the risks to political survival in autocratic governments and in rigged election regimes.
Why do governments actually fall? Popular uprisings often get credit for bringing down dictators, but mass protests can only cause the overthrow of a regime if members of the incumbent’s inner circle choose to back the insurgents at their expense. Unarmed civilians cannot overcome guns provided that those holding the guns are willing to fire on protesters. In Tiananmen Square, the generals stayed loyal and the Chinese Communist regime survived. Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution in 2007 saw tens of thousands protesting throughout the fall, but protest collapsed once the army cracked down.
When would the army defect? We can learn the answer by reflecting on past experience. The shah of Iran’s military chose to sit on its hands in 1979 rather than fight off the Khomeini revolution. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s military decided to sit on the sidelines during the 2011 Arab Spring while the people revolted. Indeed, Egypt’s military leaders chose to join the newly emergent replacement government and then toppled it shortly thereafter securing their own monopoly on power.
Many other examples illustrate a similar phenomenon. The members of the incumbent’s inner circle are loyal as long as they can count on their leader to ensure that they have a steady, continuous, substantial flow of access to wealth and power. But if the incumbent’s reliability on that front comes into doubt, then the inner circle is better off either backing a mass uprising, hoping to co-opt it later, or launching a coup d’état to install themselves in power. This brings us to an important difference between Maduro and the shah or Mubarak.
The shah was widely believed to be dying of cancer when he was overthrown (and, indeed, he did die of cancer about 18 months later). Mubarak, in his 80s at the time, suffered from the ultimate terminal illness, old age. That, coupled with President Barack Obama’s decision to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt in order to pay for the war in Afghanistan meant that Mubarak’s generals could no longer count on him to deliver the great wealth that bought their loyalty. As it turned out, Mubarak, despite frequent bouts of illness, is still alive, eight years after he was overthrown. Nevertheless, from the perspective of his inner circle, given his age and condition, he was not thought to be a reliable source of future income. Maduro, in contrast, appears perfectly healthy and likely to be a source of enrichment for his generals for years to come. Hence, they have little incentive to back away from him and great incentives to assure that he remains in power as the source of their wealth and influence.
One might reasonably suppose that severe economic shocks could lessen the loyalty of a leader’s inner circle since a severe economic downturn makes the incumbent less able, it would seem, to continue to line the pockets of his cronies. But that is too quick a leap in logic. Successful leaders, by which we mean those who survive in power, minimize what we like to call the winning coalition—the number of cronies upon whom they depend.
In a democracy, an economic downturn is a political disaster because a leader cannot compensate the many supporters who experience loss. Over the past decades Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, successfully purged thousands of civil servants and members of the military, undermined democratic institutions and stacked the judiciary. The effective result is that Maduro depends on a far smaller proportion of the Venezuelan population than do democratic leaders. Economic contraction gives him less with which to pay the winning coalition, but contraction in the winning coalition means that far, far fewer supporters need to be paid off. And indeed, the policies that reward these cronies are often the same policies that have collapsed the economy.
Maduro has certainly done lots to damage the economy, but he is not responsible for the great drop in global oil prices, a constraint that would limit his successor every bit as much as it limits him. So, as long as Maduro’s regime continues to generate substantial, albeit reduced, oil revenue, he can continue to assure his cronies that they are better off with him than they would be by gambling on a new leader who might toss them out and replace them with his own team of loyalists. That is not true for the people on the street, but their support is not essential to keep Maduro in power.
As long as Maduro can credibly promise to continue to pay his generals and other essential supporters better than they can expect to get from someone else, they have no reason to betray him. As long as they remain loyal, the odds of his downfall are small. The generals, after all, control the guns and can, in their own self-interest, choose to use the guns to make rebellion against the regime too costly for it to be sustained. That is exactly what the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary security force, did in Iran on Ayatollah Khamenei’s behalf when mass protests broke out following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questionable re-election in 2009. That is what Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime has done in Egypt following its overthrow of the freely elected government of Mohamed Morsi. Bashing heads is very effective at diminishing the incentives of new rebels to continue to take to the streets, putting their lives at risk.
Guaidó, despite the international recognition, has little real power without the backing of the men with guns. And despite his calls for the military to abandon Maduro and promises of amnesty if they do so, they are sticking with their president. Could anything induce them to abandon him now? The answer resides in money, base though that may be. Russian President Vladimir Putin has lined the pockets of the Venezuelan government to the tune of up to $5 billion. That will pay a lot of generals a lot of money for a long time.
The U.S. government, by recognizing Guaidó, has opened the door to channeling aid and other funds to him and his “government.” Thus far, however, the sum of money being talked about is only around $20 million, a paltry amount as compared with what Putin has already given and is likely to do in the future. The path to a successful coup d’état or popular transition to democracy in Venezuela requires more money for military leaders if they abandon Maduro and back Guaidó than they can expect if they remain loyal to the current regime.
That is a tall order for the Organization of American States and the governments in the Americas, but short of a war that just about no one wants, that is the only viable near-term path to bringing down Venezuela’s dictatorship and giving the rebirth of democracy any chance.