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Foreign observers of the worsening economic crisis in Venezuela will likely remember one year ago when a police officer stole a helicopter and single-handedly staged a "coup" by "attacking" a Venezuelan government building. While that coup attempt was quickly exposed as a headline-grabbing hoax (and the perpetrator was later "accidentally" killed in a raid), in a lengthy feature published Wednesday, Bloomberg revealed details about a genuine plot involving senior Venezuelan army officials who had been hoping to dislodge deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has presided over an unprecedented collapse in Venezuela that has stoked massive hyperinflation and deadly shortages of food, medicine and other vital supplies. Despite his massive unpopularity, the coup - which was foiled when its leaders were rounded up by the military, jailed and tortured - was perhaps the most credible attempt to topple Maduro since he ascended to the presidency in 2013 following the death of his political mentor, former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. 

Maduro
Nicolas Maduro

The plot, code-named "Operation Constitution", was intended to remove Maduro before his "reelection" vote in May (a vote that was boycotted by the country's political opposition). But before they could move ahead, the alleged conspirators were reportedly rounded up and imprisoned by Venezuelan military and intelligence forces.

The plot, code-named Operation Constitution, involved scores of captains, colonels, and generals from all four branches of Venezuela’s armed forces. The goal was straightforward and seismic—to capture President Nicolás Maduro and put him on trial. The plotters, wearing blue armbands marked OC, were supposed to storm the presidential palace and main military base and stop the May 20 presidential election. Some of the planning took place in Bogotá, but Colombian and U.S. officials, who allegedly knew about the plot and winked from the sidelines, declined to provide active support.

Then something went wrong. In mid-May, several dozen servicemen, including one woman, as well as a couple of civilians, were secretly arrested—some have been accused of treason—and imprisoned by a military court. Many say they’ve been tortured. The plotters believe they were betrayed, possibly by a double agent. This reconstruction of the conspiracy is based on interviews with one plot coordinator who escaped arrest, two who attended planning sessions, and lawyers and relatives of the accused. All spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Bloomberg also viewed a military court report laying out the government’s version of events; it corroborated many of the plotters’ accounts.

While ordinary Venezuelans have come to despise him, Maduro remains broadly popular with the Venezuelan military and other institutions of Venezuela's constitutionally socialist government - which is likely why he was able to foil the coup attempt. However, cracks in this alliance are beginning to form. As Bloomberg points out, some in the military have arrived at the conclusion that Maduro's ouster is the country's only hope for a near-term return to normalcy. Exhibiting a sensitivity to growing discontent in the military, Maduro bragged during a military parade over the weekend that "it's time to close ranks and dig in against treason! We need a united military loyal to the glorious country of Venezuela and its legitimate commander-in-chief!"

A report released by a Venezuelan military tribunal included some details about the May coup attempt. But Bloomberg pointed out that the report also included some fictitious details, like allegations that the Colombian and US governments had provided financial backing for a separate plot known as "Operation Armageddon."

The U.S. has "no intent to destabilize or overthrow the Venezuelan government," says a State Department spokesperson, but wants "a return to a stable, prosperous, and democratic Venezuela." Speaking in Texas in February, as coup preparations were coming to a head, then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that militaries in Latin America frequently step in during crises. “If the kitchen gets a little too hot for [Maduro], I am sure that he’s got some friends over in Cuba that could give him a nice hacienda on the beach,” he said. Both Colombia and Venezuela declined to comment.

Maria Corina Machado, a Venezuelan prosecutor and one of Maduro's most persistent domestic opponents, was swept up in the crackdown on the coup plotters, despite claiming that evidence of her involvement in the plot was "a fiction".

"I have no connection to these plots. They want to silence my voice, because I have labeled them a narco-dictatorship. I want to be clear: I want Nicolás Maduro out of power immediately. But I want him out alive so he can face the justice that his regime has denied to Venezuelans."

Initially, the coup was first planned for April 2017 with the hope of preventing Maduro from expanding his power over Venezuela's legislature. But the plot was postponed after an unrelated and smaller military uprising. Planning for the plot continued in 2018, with meetings held in homes in upscale neighborhoods in Caracas (and at one point, one conspirator snuck across the Colombian border wearing a fake mustache and using a fake ID - though it's immediately clear why). The largest batch of arrests took place right around the time of Maduro's (widely criticized) reelection vote in May.

Maduro has hung on despite months of deadly street protests last summer. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class Venezuelans - who were once citizens of one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America - have fled the country (including engineers for Venezuela's state-owned oil industry, which helped hasten the collapse in oil production). With the prospect of a coup hanging over his head, Maduro has continued with purges of the Venezuelan officers' corp. Meanwhile, successive rounds of US sanctions have cut the country off from the global financial system. But despite all of this, Rocío San Miguel, president of watchdog group Control Ciudadano, said the idea that Maduro is hanging on by a thread is a red herring.

"Maduro has developed a state policy of persecution and monitoring within the armed forces. He's paranoid. The government is creating a firewall."

As a leader, Maduro has become adept at maintaining control through fear, intimidation, and a close alliance with the country's armed forces.

And unless President Trump follows through with his idle threat to send in the tanks, don't expect Maduro to relinquish his grip on power any time soon.... Even as the country's 12-month inflation rate has soared to more than 8,900%.

VZ