Could political tension in Venezuela ignite a civil war?


The Venezuelan government’s determination to uproot the country’s democratic institutions looks almost certain to raise the in the country. Is it less clear whether that violence will ignite a civil war, trigger a coup, or simply drive Venezuela further down the road towards an and chaos.

The abrupt removal of the independently minded chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, whose office was on Saturday as a precursor to her replacement by a more compliant official, is the latest in a series of steps taken by president Nicolás Maduro to get rid of checks on his government’s power.

If the newly formed constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition and packed with Maduro supporters, delivers on a threat to dissolve parliament, where the opposition Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) has had a majority since 2016, it will end the already threadbare democratic order established under Venezuela’s 1999 constitution.

Two were taken from their homes by intelligence agents last week. Others could now face the choice of going into exile or into hiding.

The opposition has kept up daily and largely peaceful protests since April, but that may be hard to sustain in the face of increasingly brutal suppression by the security forces.

More than 120 people have been killed so far, and a militant opposition fringe has taken to with molotov cocktails and improvised weapons. In recent days a home-made bomb went off in Caracas, injuring several policemen.

“Should such events recur, Venezuela’s political conflict could morph into a low-intensity civil war,” said Phil Gunson, a senior analyst at the .

Without the outlet offered by parliament and the last remaining independent institutions like the chief prosecutor’s office, it seems inevitable that the militant end of the protest movement will go underground.

There would be no shortage of weaponry for potential rebels to use. The government has distributed weapons to its supporters and huge numbers of guns are in circulation or available across the border with Colombia.

However, some of the elements that brought full-scale civil war to Ukraine and Syria are absent in , most importantly the absent of either neighbouring countries or a large reservoir of ideologically motivated foreign fighters itching to intervene.

Another possibility is a military coup. The army has a track record in Venezuela, with abortive putsches in 1992 and 2002. The principal fissure within socialist party ranks is a civilian-military split. Maduro’s principal party rival, Diosdado Cabello, is an army captain with strong links to the generals.

In the absent of a decisive rupture of war or coup, the present trajectory takes Venezuela deeper into economic crisis, gang violence, institutional collapse and an .

Potential remedies, such as a reversal in Maduro’s direction or internationally brokered negotiations, currently seem remote.