Invasions and coup attempts will not bring democracy to Venezuela

Here is what the opposition can do to get Venezuela out of the current crisis.

Venezuela''s National Assembly President
Venezuela's National Assembly President and opposition leader Juan Guaido gestures as he speaks during a demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela on March 10, 2020 [File: Reuters/Manaure Quintero]

On May 3, a group of armed men tried, and failed, to “invade” Venezuela. Several retired military officers, ex political prisoners and an American contractor named Jordan Goudreau organised an armed incursion into the country – dubbed Operation Gedeon – in order to oust its de facto president, Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro’s interior minister, Nestor Reverol, said the attackers arrived on speedboats and tried to land  before dawn on a beach in Macuto, about an hour north of Caracas, but were intercepted by the military and special police units.

Juan Guaido – president of the National Assembly who is recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by more than 50 countries – maintains that the incursion, and the crisis that followed, has been fabricated by Maduro.

Silvercorp, Goudreau’s private security firm, however, says it met with members of Guaido’s interim government, Juan Rendon and Sergio Vergara among others, to discuss the execution of an armed operation. Rendon admitted to US media that he signed a preliminary contract with Silvercorp. Both Rendon and Vergara have since resigned from their posts in the interim government.

There is no denying that Venezuela is in a dire situation. Unprecedented economic collapse, a 94 percent poverty rate, political repression, decline of public services, education and health systems, and massive corruption scandals, have justifiably caused many Venezuelans to demand regime change.

The humanitarian crisis has displaced five million citizens and seven million people inside the country – one-quarter of the population – need urgent humanitarian assistance. The International Rescue Committee recently classified the situation in Venezuela as the fifth-worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

For many, Hollywoodesque solutions – like Operation Gedeon – are appealing. Several opposition factions have openly campaigned for an armed intervention disguised by international and constitutional provisions. Although less vocal, Guaido has not closed the door to these fantasies. Ambiguous statements such as “all options are on the table” have fed the narratives about a miraculous foreign-imposed solution. 

Unfortunately, life is not Hollywood. Contrary to these expectations, actions like Operation Gedeon are highly detrimental to the opposition. They provide the government with an opportunity to escalate repression and rally around the flag, and give credibility to the “anti-imperialist” rhetoric Maduro (and before him Hugo Chavez) have been using to legitimise power grabs.

Additionally, these actions help galvanise Chavista elites, including the military. Exploring military actions like Operation Gedeon alienates not only the Chavista elites and supporters who are relatively sympathetic to the opposition’s struggle, but also civil society and international actors committed to democracy. All of this while reinforcing divisions inside the opposition and further undermining the credibility of its leaders, who look both out of control and utterly incompetent. 

For this and other reasons, scholars and policymakers have criticised Operation Gedeon. The question is, what can the opposition do instead? Below we suggest a path forward.  

For one, the opposition needs to keep the few institutional spaces it has. Being head of the National Assembly is what gives Guaido legitimacy as interim president. This position may not be endowed with real control over the state, but it has opened bridges between the opposition and the international community.

Second, the opposition needs to participate in elections. Electoral processes are important critical junctures. Even if unfair, they provide important windows of opportunity. When used properly, electoral processes legitimise the opposition, help build unlikely alliances, and foster mobilisation against the regime. In Bolivia, the opposition’s strategic decision to participate in elections was key to unleashing the mass processes that eventually removed Evo Morales from power.

Third, opposition parties should invest in strategic coordination. Rather than merely uniting under an electoral umbrella organisation (such as Venezuela’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), parties should invest in developing clear decision-making and conflict-resolution mechanisms beyond electoral contests. 

By pooling their resources to quickly and efficiently smooth out internal divisions, parties can resist divide-and-conquer strategies by the incumbent regime, deliver consistent messages during and beyond elections, and participate in elections with joint platforms and/or candidates.

All of the above would signal to the electorate that opposition parties are willing to work together to restore democracy in the short and long-term. Strategic coordination would boost the opposition’s credibility, convince the electorate that it can provide a viable alternative to the incumbent regime and facilitate political stability in a post-transition context. 

Scholarly work on Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, as well as our own work suggests that opposition coordination helps efforts for liberalisation and/or regime change.

In the Philippines, Corazon Aquino was able to win the snap election called by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1985, only because Salvador Laurel – leader of the largest opposition party – backed down and supported her candidacy. Critically, the votes cast by Laurel’s supporters narrowed the gap between Aquino and Marcos.

Similarly, in 2002 in Kenya, opposition parties overcame prior divisions and stood by National Rainbow Coalition leader Mwai Kibaki to put an end to the Kenya African National Union (KANU)‘s 40-year-long rule.

Venezuela’s own trajectory shows that the most important mobilisations and electoral successes – like the 2015 parliamentary landslide – happened when opposition parties coordinated around a single strategy.  

Uniting around one strategic plan, however, is not easy. Negotiated transitions to democracy require important trade-offs – often those in power agree to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution or at least reduced penalties.

These concessions are essential to get them to the table, otherwise, they would have no incentive to negotiate, even under the strongest international pressure. Trade-offs like these are often hard to sell. Many victims of the regime may feel cheated, and thus less willing to vote for anybody who supports such a deal. Although hard, it might be a worthwhile sacrifice.

Attractive, go-alone strategies like the 2014 La Salida platform, the failed 2019 coup attempt, or Operation Gedeon prolong the prospects for viable change, and with that any possibility of a transfer of power in the short or long term.

A negotiation and power-sharing agreement might hinder individual short-term political interests and deliver more gradual change, but will ultimately oust Chavismo from office, allow a new government to address the humanitarian crisis, and open the doors for all politicians to run and win elections in the future. 

The unfortunate events in Macuto have not yet killed the possibility for a negotiated solution in Venezuela. Yet for that to happen, opposition factions have to move away from radical leaders and their illusions of foreign-imposed exits.

No external agent can replace the work the regime’s opponents must do at home: strategically coordinating with one another and reconstructing their credibility in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.