Venezuelan military officers are moving away from Nicolás Maduro and many agree with the opposition that he’s technically become a dictator since his Jan. 10 inauguration, but they are not willing to lead an insurrection, according to officers in exile who claim to be in contact with others on active duty.
But they are also not willing to repress massive opposition protests like the ones that shook the country in 2002, 2014 or 2017.
“We’re at the best time for something like what happened in 2002,” when the late ruler Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted in a military coup, said former Maj. Gen. Herbert García Plaza, who broke with the Maduro government in 2015. He now lives in Washington.
“The armed forces today do not have the capacity or the desire to go against the population in a massive protest,” García Plaza added.
Part of the officers’ concerns stem from Maduro’s loss of legitimacy after he was sworn in to a new presidential term following elections widely regarded as fraudulent.
The international community has already declared that the elections lacked any validity, and like the opposition-controlled legislative National Assembly, has refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimate president.
If they are ordered to confront new mass protests, many of the officers would refuse to obey because they are convinced that Maduro’s rule is unconstitutional.
“Maduro completed his presidential term. There’s a vacancy, and what the protesters would be doing is demanding that the constitution be followed. Those are elements that still resonate among the military officers,” said García Plaza.
Some officers in fact would have wanted a much stronger stand last week by the National Assembly, which under the constitution should have assumed the interim presidency of Venezuela as of Jan. 10.
The National Assembly opted for a more gradual approach, calling for a mass protest on Jan. 23 and announcing that it is working on a law that would outline the steps to form a transition government.
The approach disappointed an important number of military officers, said former Gen. Antonio Rivero, a Miami resident who said he stays in contact with active duty officers in Venezuela.
“Military men are generally not experts in law, but after Jan. 10, when there was no swearing-in ceremony for [National Assembly President] Juan Guaidó, the most common word I heard from those officers was ‘disappointment,’ ” Rivero said.
Many officers are nevertheless willing to give Guaidó and the National Assembly the benefit of the doubt and want him to assume the title of Commander in Chief of the National Armed Forces, Rivero added.
Those kinds of positions have started to show in social media.
In a video that originated in Peru, a group of Venezuelan military officers who left their country are seen rejecting Maduro’s new term and vowing to support any National Assembly effort to restore constitutional order.
The officers, who claimed to represent an important part of the armed forces, urged Venezuelans to protest without fear.
“Be assured that you can fully exercise your constitutional rights and go into the streets to protest peacefully on Jan. 23. The armed forces are constitutionally mandated to guarantee the security of all Venezuelans,” the group said in a communique read by dissident Lt. Josue Hidalgo Azuaje.
“We call on all components of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces … to stop allowing themselves to be used and abused by these criminals. It is our duty as armed forces members to contribute to the full enforcement of the constitution, without any political bias whatsoever,” the statement added.
The communique contrasted with statements coming out of the high command levels in Venezuela. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López declared last week that he’s ready to give his life in defense of the Maduro regime.
“That’s a lie,” said García Plaza, who has worked closely with Padrino López.
“Padrino is only ready to give his life to defend what he owns,” said García Plaza, adding that the problem is that Padrino believes he must help Maduro to stay in power in order to protect his personal interests.
Such reasoning for supporting Maduro, widespread in the past, has started to change amid suspicions that the situation has become unsustainable for Maduro, as a significant majority of Venezuelans face increasing difficulties finding food and medicines.
“Hyperinflation is eating up this regime,” said García Plaza, adding that the economic and social crisis is also undermining the loyalty of the armed forces. “There’s a lot of hunger in the barracks. That’s why we saw massive desertions of soldiers last year.”
The desertions have also affected the government’s ability to repress protests.
“Just in 2018, 11,000 professionals left the armed forces, including nearly 5,000 National Guard members, the ones in the streets,” said García Plaza. “Their equipment is also dwindling. The National Guard is out of tear gas.”
Follow Antonio Maria Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM