Why Juan Guaidó’s “Coup” Failed: A Chat with Naunihal Singh

Earlier this week, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó failed to topple the regime of Nicolás Maduro after calling on members of the military and his fellow citizens to rise up. We spoke with scholar and coup expert Nauinihal Singh on why things didn't go Mr. Guaidó's way. The exchange has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


1. Why do coups succeed or fail?

What matters most is information and expectations. That's because information and expectations are self-fulfilling. If people start to believe that your side is going to win, and that view spreads, it's more likely that it actually will.

The first thing you need to do is make a public broadcast. The key here is that you're not talking to the people of the country but to military actors to try and convince them you've already won.

2. What mistakes did Juan Guaidó make this week?

He made his announcement via Twitter. Firstly, who's going to be reading Twitter at 5:00 in the morning? Secondly, who's going to follow Juan Guaidó'? If you're a military commander, the last thing you want is for state intelligence to see that you follow Juan Guaidó.

Usually these broadcasts involve a general. Guaidó showed up with some low-ranking military figures in the background. You look at that and you say, I don't know who's supporting Guaidó. If he'd been standing side by side with generals, it would have had a very different impact.

What you need is the simultaneity that creates common knowledge. Twitter doesn't have that. A Tweet being viral means it's read by 2 percent of the population (over the course of five days), but a broadcast gets heard by everyone within the military at the same time. We don't have social media that operates that way right now.

3. What did you think of Maduro's response?

Maduro was weak as well. Ideally, Maduro would have been on television right away. The fact that he waited for 12 hours made him look weak, and that makes me wonder what's happening on his side

4. Can Guaidó turn things around?

Yes, there are times when a coup attempt fails initially but then eventually succeeds. Guaidó needs to underscore the fact that he hasn't being arrested. He needs to get a number of people out on the street and to show that the military is divided and not fully in support of Maduro. If he can achieve that, then it's possible that pressure from the street might cause enough division to topple the regime.


* Note: we use the phrase "coup" in the narrow technical sense of an attempt to take over government using force or the threat of force.

** Disclaimer: Naunihal Singh is a scholar at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here reflect his personal opinions and not those of his employer.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.