The Venezuelan opposition has launched a coup against itself, not against the government. Two strains of the opposition movement are vying for dominance over each other, though they both share the same overarching strategy.
The current opposition strategy is to pressure Nicolas Maduro into resigning from office, and prompt another presidential election. They intend to win the next election by terrorising swing voters into capitulating to the opposition.
For now, this is the only real option available to the opposition. The military is firmly aligned with Chavismo, ruling out a repeat of the April 2002 coup attempt. However, a possible recall referendum is still two years away, plus the far right is short sighted and generally apathetic towards democracy anyway.
Maduro’s slim electoral victory last April illustrated that a sizable chunk of the electorate can quickly swing from Chavismo to the opposition if enough pressure is applied. In April 2013, all the opposition needed was a simple carrot and stick. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ well choreographed electoral campaign promising a squeaky clean Chavez-lite was backed by a convenient spike in scarcity. And he almost won.
In the lead up to the 12 February violence, Venezuelans have faced more demoralising scarcity than last April. Along with daily queues outside supermarkets, in places like Merida there has been a steady stream of violence from opposition groups in recent weeks. Now, they’re upping the ante.
Although the vast majority of the opposition appear to back the forced resignation strategy, there are two distinct camps. The moderate majority of the opposition movement have advocated for peaceful demonstrations against Maduro, against a backdrop of growing hostility between the government and the private sector.
In recent weeks Capriles has become something of a poster child of the moderates. He had drifted away from extremism, and expressed willingness to work with the Maduro administration. Yet he has remained firmly on the right, and critical of the government. In the long term, this kind of moderate figure is exactly what the opposition movement needs if it wants to win power. Fringe extremists like lawmaker Maria Machado, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and Voluntad Popular’s Leopoldo Lopez should know they will increasingly become irrelevant as the opposition movement tries to win the centre. Their insurrectionist tactics and uncompromising fanaticism are relics of the last decade, and unappealing to both the moderate opposition and the wavering Chavistas they need.
Like the moderates, the extremist minority is pushing for Maduro to resign. However, they differ from the majority opposition in two respects.
Firstly, they are terrorists. The extremist fringe is willing to employ as much violence and chaos as possible to blackmail Maduro into surrender and terrorise the public. They’re armed, fanatical and they’re trying to provoke a bloodbath. For them, violence is just an additional lever to stall the revolution, along with applying pressure to middle ground voters. After all, if the government can’t maintain basic security on the streets, how can they possibly deal with the economy; let along deepen the revolution?
If they fail in their ultimate goal and Maduro doesn’t break, then the least they can do is continue obstructing the government.
Secondly, the fringe right-wing knows the sun is setting on them, and the current violence is an eleventh hour attempt to cling to political relevance and radicalise the moderates. So far, the vast majority of the opposition movement has failed to condemn the aggression of the extremists. Hence, if we are witnessing an attempted coup, it’s against Capriles and the moderate opposition strain he represents. Power hungry extremists like Machado, Ledezma and Lopez aspire to seize the reigns of the opposition movement. To them, Capriles has become meek and weighed down by two failed presidential bids. If they can provoke the bloodbath they desperately desire, they could replace the moderates as the dominant opposition force.