It was surely no accident that on Jan. 23, the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s legitimate president. That challenge to President Nicolás Maduro occurred on the anniversary of a military coup in 1958 that ended a decade of dictatorship and ushered in an era of Venezuelan democracy and economic progress.
Venezuela’s military has long been a kingmaker at defining democratic moments. In addition to the 1958 coup, it helped to install a lion of Venezuelan democracy, Rómulo Betancourt, in the presidency in 1945 and was central to returning Hugo Chávez to office after he was displaced in a coup in 2002. That helps explain why Mr. Guaidó has appealed to the military by, for instance, persuading the National Assembly to pass an amnesty law for those who act “in favor of the restitution of democracy in Venezuela.”
Venezuela is not exceptional. In many countries, the military has played a critical role in establishing democracy. To be sure, it often exacts a steep price in the process, pushing for economic and institutional distortions to democracy that hamper its responsiveness to the will of the majority. In countries like Chile, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan, coaxing powerful and entrenched militaries from power has required not just amnesty guarantees but also carving out economic domains for them to run autonomously and in many cases shunting profits directly to the military without any congressional authority to the contrary. Often these perks are then protected politically through constitutional provisions that grant outgoing authoritarians disproportionate political power or make the transition deal very difficult to overturn.
In Venezuela, Mr. Guaidó’s outreach, at least initially, was not persuasive: The defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, flanked by Venezuela’s top military brass, publicly cast the military’s lot with Mr. Maduro. He proclaimed that Mr. Guaidó’s declaration represented a grave danger to national sovereignty and public order and that the military would remain loyal to the Constitution
But that might not be the end of the story. Behind closed doors, the military may be waiting for a better offer. Under Hugo Chávez and then Mr. Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become deeply involved in a host of lucrative economic activities. Mr. Chávez handed it the reins of Venezuela’s crown jewel, the state-run oil company PDVSA. It controls the country’s ports, presiding over imports and exports. It controls contracts for public housing projects and mining and oil services concessions. And it reportedly controls valuable drug-smuggling routes, money-laundering outfits and other illicit trades. This has generated immense profits for the top military brass even as rank-and-file soldiers struggle with hunger and have deserted in large numbers.
If Mr. Maduro goes, the military’s economic position is at risk. New elections may bring to power an opposition that seeks to curtail the military’s power. Against this perilous backdrop, Mr. Guiadó’s promise of amnesty is hardly enough.
It took far more than amnesty for the military to hand over power in Chile, a transition Mr. Guiadó himself has discussed. Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution, which guided the Chilean transition to democracy in 1989 — and still operates today in a modified form — granted the commanders in chief of the armed forces and the national police permanent offices that allowed dismissal only by the president upon agreement from a National Security Council, which itself was majority dominated by the armed forces. Ten percent of copper revenues, one of Chile’s most valuable exports, was automatically allocated to the military budget. This was combined with constitutionally protected amnesties, direct positions in the Senate, a favorable electoral system and supermajoritarian thresholds for constitutional change.
In Myanmar, the military engineered a favorable Constitution and then passed a raft of legislation to protect its interests just before democratization. This included transferring manufacturing plants from the ministry of industry to the ministry of defense. The military’s chief conglomerate companies, the Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, route a vast portion of business, such as telecommunications and petroleum imports, directly into the hands of military officers who had ruled the country.
The arrangement also operates in Pakistan. Ruling military generals in recent decades grabbed up land, farms, housing operations and industrial operations and routed their ownership and operation through the ministry of defense. This setup has been protected through repeated transitions into and out of democracy. Pakistan’s military is now the country’s biggest business conglomerate.
The model of carving out autonomous economic fiefs and twinning it with political protection to coax the military from power is not without problems, as Myanmar and Pakistan demonstrate. An autonomous and powerful military that is rankled under democracy is more capable of stepping off the sidelines to re-establish dictatorship. And it can get its way more easily through merely threatening to do so.
While this model might seem unpalatable given the Venezuelan military’s recent past, it may present the most reasonable way forward toward democracy absent outside intervention. Furthermore, many countries — for example, Portugal, Spain, South Korea and Taiwan — have made full transitions to democracy through this route.
The path remains clear. The military has not yet arrested Mr. Guaidó. And Mr. Padrino has declared that the military will adhere to the Constitution. As it turns out, Venezuela has a sitting constituent assembly that Mr. Maduro convoked to defang the opposition-dominated National Assembly. So one way out for the military is to push Mr. Maduro aside and then appeal to the constituent assembly to draft provisions that protect the military while also calling new elections. This deal could be passed, and even voted on, by the parallel National Assembly.
This would return Venezuela to democracy. And while the opposition would not get everything it wanted, democracy would give it a newfound seat at the table and the chance to build a more just and equitable future — an option that is currently foreclosed under Mr. Maduro.
Michael Albertus, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is a co-author of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.