Until recently, Venezuela was the most affluent country in Latin America, with almost all of its educated urban population having access to clean drinking water, sanitation facilities and electricity. But the heydays of the early 2000s are over. Today, Venezuela is caught in a growing economic and political crisis which has seen hyperinflation, food shortages, political repression and over three million refugees flee the country.
Political tension in the country has worsened in recent weeks due to the start of President Nicolás Maduro’s new six-year term, following elections that were largely condemned as fraudulent. Shortly after Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony, Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela’s opposition-led Nation Assembly, stood before thousands of protesters and declared himself Venezuela’s interim president due to a constitutional provision for the event of a flawed election. In the weeks that have followed Guaidó’s announcement, more than 20 countries, including Australia, have recognised his right to lead.
Yet despite the growing crisis, President Maduro is likely to survive opposition efforts to topple the government so long as he can retain the support of the military. This is not the first time in Venezuela’s history that the military has been the critical power broker. In the past, the military has played a vital role in both crushing and restoring democracy. For the time being, top Venezuelan military members have made it clear that they will continue to support President Maduro. With the government in an increasingly weak position and the economic situation deteriorating, why is the military continuing to stand behind the government?
President Maduro’s control over the military is largely a relic of his predecessor Hugo Chávez. When Chávez came to power in 1999, he purged the military in order to ensure its senior figures were aligned with his revolutionary ideals. He entrenched loyalty by providing access to positions of power outside of the military, including access to cabinet posts, control of banks and other important state services.
President Maduro has continued this tactic. Venezuela’s critical food distribution service is run by defence minister Vladimir Padrino and state-owned oil and gas company, PDVSA, is run by a National Guard General, Major General Manuel Quevedo. Senior military figures have also been shielded from the repercussions of Venezuela’s severe economic crisis. There are even allegations that some top military brass have cashed in on deals which include drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, currency scams and contraband smuggling. For this reason, switching sides means sacrificing the economic and political power that top military figures currently enjoy.
President Maduro is also in control of Venezuela’s powerful counter-military intelligence service, which has helped prevent dissent within the armed forces by investigating and prosecuting any sign of rebellion, often with brutal force.
Members of the military also fear being held to account for their actions. The military has been accused of grave human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual assault making it hazardous to change sides because of the potential repercussions they could face under a new regime. To combat this, Juan Guaidó has promised amnesty to all security forces that break with President Maduro. In an effort to spread this message to mid-level and junior military service members, in January, opposition groups arrived at military barracks to hand troops leaflets promising them amnesty if they backed the opposition.
In recent weeks, there have been signs of growing unease. Thousands of troops who earn the equivalent of a few dollars a month have deserted, and scores of officers have been detained on conspiracy charges. On 22 January, two dozen national guard members raided an arms depot in Caracas and called for a popular uprising before they were arrested. On 27 January top military representative to the US Col José Luis Silva defected and called on other officers to do the same.
Still, despite opposition efforts, these cases represent only minor cracks in the military’s loyalty to President Maduro. At this stage, the military looks set to back President Maduro against any popular uprisings. For this reason, opposition forces are pushing for officers to simply remain in the barracks and allow anti-government protests to bubble up rather than partake in a traditional coup. In the future of Venezuela’s growing political and economic crisis, the military’s actions will be a deciding factor. President Maduro will be empowered to cling on to power and violently crush opposition dissent as long as he maintains the support of the armed forces.
Rose Iles Fealy is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs