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Good Coup, Bad Coup

protesters with flags and signs march on the Palace of Justice in Maracaibo, Venezuela
Protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 2014. Photo by Maria Alejandra Mora (SoyMAM).

You could say Venezuela had a bad week in April. Doing so might falsely suggest that any of the weeks before it were good, but that doesn’t mean it would not also reflect the latest developments in that forlorn country.

On April 20, General Motors said it would stop doing business in Venezuela following the confiscation of a factory by the government. GM complained that the seizure violated its right to due process and represented an illegal judicial seizure of its assets. Unfortunately for the automaker, in Venezuela today the “right to due process” is functionally nonexistent. As other multinational companies have found, pulling out of Venezuela may be the only economically rational course at this point.

The departure of GM and other businesses is bad news, but hardly the worst the country faces at the moment. Venezuela is starving and dysfunctional. Three people were killed at an anti-government demonstration that same week, one of them only 17 years old. At least 26 other Venezuelans died at protests in April. The International Monetary fund has predicted unemployment will rise above 25 percent this year, and the price of food continues to spike.

Some of the misery in Venezuela might have been prevented if the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez had succeeded. The country’s military demanded – and received – Chavez’s resignation, but failed to hold the country for more than a couple of days.

At the time, the United States was criticized for not publicly condemning Chavez’s removal. Fifteen years later, it is worth asking whether we should have done more to support it. After all, it later came to light that the CIA knew a coup was in the works. State Department officials even said a senior diplomat warned Chavez of the rumors, though he was reportedly dismissive at the time.

Ultimately, after some dithering, the United States stood aside and did nothing to support the insurgents. As part of the Organization of American States’ Permanent Council, the U.S. condemned the action once it had failed and publicly disavowed any involvement.

Since his election in 1998, Chavez had already shown himself to have next to no regard for due process or political checks and balances. Almost from the inception of his tenure, Chavez nationalized large portions of the country’s economy, seizing operations in agriculture, mining and telecommunications, to name only a few. After the coup, however, Chavez went further. He turned the state-controlled petroleum company PDVSA – the country’s main asset – into his personal fiefdom and political slush fund. He systematically attacked the independent press, undermined the judiciary, usurped the congress and persecuted his opponents, all while Venezuela gradually declined from one of Latin America’s leading economic powers into a financial basket case.

When Chavez took ill, his regime concealed his condition from the population and would likely have fallen but for the support of Chavez’s allies in Havana. Since his demise, the state of the nation has gone from bad to impossible.

So if we had it to do over again, would we leave the opposition that seized control of the government in 2002 to its own devices, or would we intervene (or at least offer substantial behind-the-scenes support) to give them a chance to hold power long enough to restore a functioning democracy?

To put it another way, is there such a thing as a good coup?

If today’s regime in North Korea were to be toppled, would we oppose such a move? Display indifference? Welcome it as at least a chance to avoid a geopolitical catastrophe involving a renegade nation with an advancing nuclear weapons and missile program? Would we denounce a coup against Syria’s Bashar Assad or against his sponsors in Iran?

Or, for a recent example, consider the attempted coup in Turkey last year. A faction of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the days following the attempted insurrection’s failure, the Ankara government arrested tens of thousands of suspects; many other Turks lost their jobs due to suspected links to the movement. Since then, the government has accelerated the trend toward authoritarianism, undermining the judiciary and compromising the election board that oversaw the recent controversial vote to expand the president’s powers. As recently as last week, the Turkish government arrested around 1,000 people with alleged ties to last year’s attempted coup, though many of the detainees’ relatives maintain that this action is a pretext to solidify the president’s control of the country.

Turkey poses an especially tricky situation because it is a NATO member. And while Erdogan had shown strong anti-democratic tendencies even prior to last summer, he is the country’s elected leader. Further, Russia would love to see Turkey leave NATO, willingly or unwillingly, since it controls access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. So the situation was complex, and the prior administration’s response to Turkey’s attempted coup was strictly hands-off. But had Turkey’s coup plotters gotten farther – say, as far as their Venezuelan counterparts in 2002 – one could have made a case for American support, or at least acceptance, of Erdogan’s overthrow.

America’s history of supporting plotters who overturned elected governments is not one in which to take pride. The rightist regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew and murdered Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, in 1973 is one example. We did not wash our hands of Pinochet until his agents murdered a former Chilean diplomat with a car bomb in 1976 in Washington, D.C. (A married American couple who worked with the diplomat were collateral damage; the wife was killed and the husband was severely wounded in the bombing.) American-backed coups in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s did not lead to stories with happy endings either.

But does that mean that no native action to overthrow an oppressive government is legitimate and worthy of support? There is a difference between actively fomenting a coup – or, to a greater extreme, imposing one from the outside – and merely assisting individuals who seek to liberate themselves from encroaching tyranny before it becomes too late.

Certainly the Soviets were not shy about imposing friendly governments in neighboring countries during the Cold War. They interfered first in East Germany in 1953, then in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was to forestall another such intervention that the Polish military imposed martial law in reaction to the Solidarity movement in 1981.

In July 1944, some German military leaders even tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb in his own conference room. Their motives were hardly high-minded; the war they had prosecuted enthusiastically just a few years earlier was turning against the Third Reich, and they wanted to achieve the best possible outcome in what they knew to be a lost cause. Still, there is little doubt that the Allies would have welcomed a regime change in Berlin, which might have shortened the war in Europe and saved untold thousands of military and civilian lives as a result.

Not all coups are created equal. While hindsight is 20-20 and clairvoyance is in short supply, failing to recognize the ones that are launched in a just cause can lead to vast misery later. Just ask any Venezuelan.

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