As Venezuela’s streets seethe, focus turns to role of military

Police and protesters clash in Venezuela

Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.
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Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.

Venezuelans took to the streets again Thursday, braving tear gas, beatings and bloodshed as they try to force President Nicolás Maduro to hold elections in the crisis-riddled nation.

But even as a growing number of people seem willing to put their lives on the line to push for change, Maduro appears to have the backing of the one group that might make a difference: the military.

Since taking office in 2013, Maduro has showered the armed forces with privileges and powers that have isolated them from the worst of the economic malaise, and guaranteed their loyalty.

“The military has strong economic incentives to hold Maduro in power as it controls food and basic goods imports and increasingly mining- and oil-sector contracts,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior country risk analyst with the London-based analysis firm IHS Markit, said in a statement.

Read More: Mother of all marches leads to violence, uncertainty

But even as the military seems to be marching in lockstep behind Maduro, the opposition claims there are fissures in the ranks.

On Thursday, National Assembly President Julio Borges told Exitos FM radio that sources within the military were alerting him to a “boiling cauldron” of conflicting opinions. While radical loyalists within the military are arguing for a heavy hand against protesters, there are also moderates calling for restraint.

Video captures the moment a woman refused to move out of the way of a police tank during a violent protest in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on April 19, 2017.

“There is the internal debate,” Borges said. “And some are realizing that the moment has come that they can no longer throw the armed forces at us as if we were the enemy.”

Despite the almost-daily scenes of the national guard and pro-government colectivo gangs battling protesters, the military itself has not been pulled into the fight. And that would likely be an inflection point, said Risa Grais-Targow, the Latin America director for the New York-based Eurasia Group.

“The key variable will be whether protests grow to the point that Maduro is forced to call on the traditional armed forces to contain unrest,” she wrote. “This is because segments of the military would likely be unwilling to use massive and sustained violence against civilians to defend the regime, which in turn would force what would likely be a messy but relatively rapid transition.”

The focus on military loyalties comes as three weeks of anti-government protests have rocked the nation, leaving at least nine dead and hundreds detained. On Wednesday, the opposition held “the mother of all marches,” which resulted in the death of two protesters and one member of the security forces.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Néstor Reverol said the brazen shooting death of a young woman in Táchira state had been the deliberate act of opposition agitators hoping to inflame the nation and tarnish the administration.

Read More: OAS chief says Venezuela has blood on its hands

Maria Corina Machado, an opposition leader, called Reverol’s assertion a lie, and blamed the administration for flooding the streets with weapons.

“Those who have the bullets are responsible for the dead, and those who have the guns are generating the violence,” she said.

The chaos has also had an economic toll. On Thursday, General Motors, which has been in Venezuela for 35 years, said it was ceasing business in the country after the government seized one of its factories.

The new wave of demonstrations began early this month after the pro-government Supreme Court briefly dissolved the National Assembly — only rolling back the measure amid an international outcry. Days later, the administration announced that Henrique Capriles — the governor of Miranda state who’s seen as an opposition frontrunner in a potential 2018 presidential election — was being barred from holding public office for 15 years.

A group of protesters attacked a police armored personal carrier forcing them to retreat in Venezuela.

The opposition says the court’s move was tantamount to a coup and is asking for the removal of the justices, the release of political prisoners and, crucially, general elections.

On Wednesday, speaking before thousands of his own followers, Maduro said he looked forward to seeing his foes at the ballot box but stopped short of saying when a vote might be held. Regional elections, which were supposed to take place last year, were never called, presumably because the government knows it would lose the vote. Presidential elections should be held late next year, but no dates have been announced.

Maduro also said he would be inviting the opposition to a new round of “peace” talks to overcome the crisis.

Borges and others have said talks are a cynical ploy at best. Reacting to the possibility of renewed dialogue earlier in the week, Borges blasted back on Twitter: “Maduro, you torturer of the youth, don’t call for dialogue based on repression. The only dialogue is a general election.”

Read More: Venezuela controls 500+ companies, most of them failing

The opposition has reason to be skeptical. In 2016, amid protests over a Supreme Court decision to squash a presidential recall, the two sides engaged in Vatican-backed talks that led to very few real concessions and opened up fissures within an already divided opposition.

Despite the military backing of Maduro, the opposition has remained hopeful that it can appeal to the rank and file, whose families are also victims of Venezuela’s economic crisis, which features massive shopping lines, hyperinflation and food shortages.

Earlier this week, Capriles appealed to soldiers to consider their loyalties.

“You have to consider whether you want to embrace a government that’s lost legitimacy inside and outside of the country,” he said, “or do you want your uniforms to recover the prestige that they once had.”