Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has long known that the armed forces hold the key to his continued tenure in office.
Both Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, took great pains to create a “coup-proof” military, one whose loyalty was guaranteed by both greed and fear. And while cracks have appeared in recent days in that unified facade, there appear to be few outward signs that it will crumble anytime soon.
On Saturday, four air force officers — three generals and a female major — announced over social media that they were taking the side of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president on Jan. 23 after calling Maduro’s May 20 reelection rigged and his presidency illegitimate.
“In Venezuela, it is urgent and necessary to rescue democracy and restore the rule of law,” said one of the renegade officers, Gen. Jorge Oropeza Pernalete, in a video released Sunday on YouTube. “I call on others to repudiate Nicolas Maduro and those who are with him in the regime who have taken power in an arbitrary and authoritarian way.”
How deep dissent runs in the ranks is difficult to say. After declaring himself president, Guaido immediately called on the armed forces to support a “transitional government” and proposed a law offering amnesty to all those in uniform who switch allegiance to his government.
Maduro has responded with shows of force at various military bases and repeated calls on army officers and enlisted to stay loyal.
“Every day the armed forces must forge itself in union, loyalty, discipline and obedience,” Maduro said Saturday at a rally of supporters. “If Venezuela wants a future, peace and democracy, we have to preserve the strength and union of the Bolivarian national armed forces.”
In the 10 days since Guaido’s announcement, there have been no known high-level defections other than the four air force officers. On Jan. 21, a group of national guard troops staged a mutiny, raiding a barracks in Caracas, the capital, seizing arms and vehicles. Maduro quickly quashed the rebellion and arrested 27 guardsmen.
Any uprising in the ranks will take time, if it happens at all, and will probably originate in the midlevel ranks among officers and enlisted men and women whose families have to deal with the harsh realities of Venezuelan life, said Jose Machillanda, a professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas and a former army officer.
Desertion rates have gone up in the army and national guard, as many soldiers, airmen and sailors have joined the more than 2 million Venezuelans fleeing the country in recent years amid economic collapse, Machillanda noted. Hyperinflation, scarcities of food and medicines, and a broken economy are especially affecting the lower ranks, he said.
Experts discount the possibility of mass abandonments by the top brass because Maduro and Chavez were careful to give them exalted status, with high rank and perks, including generous salaries, apartments and entourages. The Venezuelan military now features more than 3,000 generals and admirals, said Andres Bello Catholic University professor Carlos Calatrava. By contrast, the much larger U.S. military has only 920 such “flag officers,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
“At the moment, the armed forces resemble what you can call an armed political party and the only thing sustaining Maduro in power is its leaders, the military high command,” Calatrava said .
Also impeding large-scale rebellion is the fact that an unknown number of commanders have become complicit in illegal activities. U.S. authorities believe many are involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and black market dealings.
“One of the major reasons why the military leadership supports Maduro is that, in a transition to democracy, they all will end up on trial,” said Harold Trinkunas, a Stanford senior research scholar who has written extensively on the Venezuelan military.
Another factor, according to Trinkunas, is that Chavez, who led the country for 14 years until his death in 2013, embedded Cuban-trained spies in the military leadership to monitor discontent. Trinkunas said the most serious threat to Maduro to date was last year’s “Operation Constitution” coup plot, reportedly involving officers from all branches of the military. It was thwarted, but had been “allowed to develop so Maduro could find out how many were participating, and then [make] arrests before the plot could come to fruition,” he added.
Isolated events such as the June 2017 hijacking of a helicopter by a police investigator who later launched grenades at the supreme court, and the drone bomb that exploded at a military parade attended by Maduro last August attest more to the difficulty of plotting a large-scale revolt than to Maduro’s weakness, Calatrava said.
The operational state of the Venezuelan military and the martial spirits of those in uniform are important considerations for the United States as it weighs military intervention, an option dismissed by most analysts, who say it could produce another Vietnam- or Iraq-style quagmire.
In a CBS-TV interview Sunday, President Trump described the possibility that the U.S. may intervene militarily to support Guaido as an “option.” His national security advisor, John Bolton, displayed a notebook at a news appearance last month on which was written “5,000 troops to Colombia.” Bolton later promised “serious consequences” if Guaido is harmed, raising the specter of a military response.
The United States was quick to recognize Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader after he declared himself president. Guaido is president of the National Assembly, the legislative body that Maduro has sidelined and replaced with his own legislature stacked with his supporters.
Although Venezuela’s poorly fed, trained and equipped military is no match for U.S. military might, the hard part would follow in the lengthy transition to democracy in which U.S. forces may face thousands of armed paramilitary groups mounting rearguard attacks resembling those that bedeviled American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“U.S. intervention would be very risky and a bad idea,” said Trinkunas. “Not because it would fail. A U.S. invasion would be over quickly, in weeks, if not days. But because Venezuela has all kinds of other armed actors that I would worry more about than the military.”
Trinkunas was referring to thousands of armed, mobile and ideologically motivated militias in three different groups that could put up an indefinite fight. Machillanda, of Simon Bolivar University, identified the three groups as the Collectives, University Militias and Armed Youth and said they are used by Maduro to suppress dissent and harass the opposition mainly in poor barrios.
“These three paramilitary groups have created a factor of extreme disorder inside the Venezuelan political system,” Machillanda said.
The main branches of Venezuela’s military — the army, air force, navy and national guard — number about 125,000. Maduro also has at his disposal between 500,000 and 1 million members of the Bolivarian National Militia, a lightly trained branch of weekend warriors that Chavez established in 2011. During his speech Saturday, Maduro said he plans to expand enlistment in the group to 2 million by April.