Venezuela

Who’s in charge? Venezuela’s military emerges stronger amid crisis

In this Oct. 27, 2014 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, speaks with his Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino, during the new military chief's swearing-in ceremony at the Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas.
In this Oct. 27, 2014 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, left, speaks with his Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino, during the new military chief's swearing-in ceremony at the Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas. AP

On Sept. 1, Venezuela’s opposition has promised to hold a massive demonstration in the capital demanding a presidential recall in the midst of a deep political and economic crisis that has many going hungry and emotions on edge.

But there’s one looming question: Will the military allow the protest?

“We’re betting that it will be the largest gathering in the country’s history, and the armed forces are going to have to choose,” said opposition deputy Armando Armas. “Are they really on the side of the people and the Constitution?”

No one knows for sure whether the military will stand by passively as people are bussed into Caracas to exercise their right to peaceful dissent. But many Venezuelans fear the armed forces are likely to close ranks around the administration and do their best — with roadblocks, tear gas and intimidation — to keep the hordes from turning into a meaningful mass.

the gradual expansion of military powers in response to the regime’s loss of legitimacy is starting to resemble a slow-motion coup.

International Crisis Group

The military has many reasons to support President Nicolás Maduro, including duty, prestige and perks. They have their own food distribution systems, so they don’t have to suffer through the day-long lines that average citizens face. And they also have their own hospitals — presumably ones that aren’t lacking everything from antibiotics to needles and gauze.

Gilded service?

But analysts say the military’s privileges and future are so tied to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that they’ve lost their primary function as defenders of the Constitution.

The military has so much power, and so many economic and political interests, that “we’re living in a barracks-nation,” said Luis Alberto Buttó, the director of the Latin American Center for Security Studies at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.

Eleven of the country’s 20 ruling-party governors are ex-military, and 12 cabinet positions are also in the hands of either active or retired military officers. In addition, the military owns television stations, cargo companies, insurance firms, import-export enterprises and other businesses.

“The military is a preponderant force, politically, economically and in the corporate world, and they’re out to defend their interests,” Buttó said. “Under these circumstances, democracy is something of a myth, a symbol. It’s not real. And that’s Venezuela’s reality right now.”

Ever since the late President Hugo Chávez, a former tank commander, won the presidency in 1999 and brought his colleagues with him, the military has seen its star rise. When Maduro — a one-time bus driver and union organizer — became Chávez’s successor in 2013, many wondered what would happen to the military’s power. Maduro himself, in December, talked about the need to “demilitarize” the administration.

That never happened.

Instead, last month, Maduro named Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino López the head of the “Sovereign Supply Mission,” which has the task of ending the country’s food and medicine shortages. In addition, he ordered all the other ministries be “absolute subordinates” to Gen. Padrino’s new office.

The unprecedented promotion and the “the gradual expansion of military powers in response to the regime’s loss of legitimacy is starting to resemble a slow-motion coup,” wrote Phil Gunson with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank supported by western governments and private foundations.

But it’s a coup that may have strengthened Maduro by binding his fate to the military’s, said Armas, who’s also on the congressional military oversight committee.

By making Padrino responsible for the country’s most hot-button issue (the lack of food and medicine) it also puts the military on the hook for the protests arising from the problem.

“By making Padrino López [unofficial] co-president of Venezuela, Maduro is forcing him to share the costs if there’s eventually repression,” Armas said. “The blow-back won’t only stain Maduro but it will affect the armed forces, too.”

Drugs, Smuggling, Survival

There are also darker reasons for the military to support the status quo. For years, there have been rumors and allegations that the armed forces are deeply involved in the drug trade, contraband and black market currency sales.

Earlier this month, Gen. Néstor Reverol, the former head of Venezuela’s counter-narcotics agency, was indicted by federal prosecutors in New York on charges of trafficking drugs to the United States. The following day, Maduro named him interior minister.

On Tuesday, Venezuela sentenced 10 people, including three national guard members to 22 years in prison for their roles in shipping 3,000 pounds of cocaine to Europe on an Air France flight in 2012.

A military salary won’t even buy you food, so they’ve had to rely on these networks of corruption.

Jose Antonio Colina, retired militiary

In a sense, the rot is understandable, said José Antonio Colina, a former army lieutenant and now a vocal government critic living in Miami. A captain in the army makes 21,220 bolivares a month, or about $33, he said.

“A military salary won’t even buy you food, so they’ve had to rely on these networks of corruption,” he explained.

Those who do well at the corruption, he said, “live like kings in a destroyed country.”

Colina said there was a time when the military was seen as an apolitical counterbalance to the executive branch. But that’s no longer the case, as the armed forces have been distilled into a pro-administration force. (Since 2007, the military’s motto has been “Fatherland, socialism or death. We will win!”)

“Anyone who doesn’t identify with the regime, and doesn’t shout its slogans, gets sent home without a rank or is sent to the most isolated parts of the country where they can’t do anything,” Colina said. “That’s why Maduro, despite his lack of popularity and all the times he’s screwed up, is still supported by the corrupt armed forces.”

But that support may have limits.

“With so much power concentrated in the hands of the military, understanding what their goals are is paramount,” wrote Gunson with the Crisis Group. “Rather than merely shoring up an increasingly unpopular president, the aim of the generals may be to control the transition in a way that protects their own interests.”

And protecting their own interests may mean throwing Maduro under the bus by allowing the recall to go ahead — but not until 2017.

Recall race

The opposition is demanding a recall this year, when a win would trigger new elections. But if the recall happens after Jan. 10, then Maduro’s hand-picked vice president will finish out his term through 2019. For the military, that might be the least disruptive scenario.

Earlier this month, the National Electoral Council released an election calendar that makes the recall this year unlikely but not impossible. The opposition is hoping that the Sept. 1 demonstration, billed as “the taking of Caracas,” will force the administration to pick up the pace.

Polls show that 80 percent of the population want Maduro out. And that’s not lost on the military. For them, a recall next year may be a way to isolate a toxic president and keep the socialist PSUV party viable for elections in three years, said Reggie Thompson with Stratfor, a U.S.-based analytical firm.

“The military has loyalty toward the PSUV remaining in power past the next election,” Thompson said. “They have loyalty to the party, not necessarily to this administration.”

Opposition deputy Armas, however, still thinks a majority of the rank-and-file armed forces will play by the rules and allow the demonstration to flourish.

After all, there’s one bond that’s tighter than the military brotherhood: blood.

The vast majority of the military want to uphold the Constitution and allow the recall to happen, Armas said, “because they also have families that are suffering.”

A previous version of this article referred to the International Crisis Group as an independent think tank.

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