When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reshuffled duties in his deeply embattled government earlier this week, it wasn’t the changes at the top of the transport and fishing ministries that caused a buzz.
Instead, it was the sacking of the heads of several branches of the military, in particular the general overseeing the National Guard, that drew widespread attention.
That, plus Mr. Maduro’s pointed announcement that he was retaining his defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino López, whom he described as a “loyal man.”
The unpopular president’s actions and words this week underscore just how dependent he has become on the country’s military, after more than two years of putting a growing number of generals in charge of everything from food distribution to new oil and mining projects.
But they also suggest an awareness on his part that a military with much higher popular support than his own could one day engineer his downfall. Some regional experts suggest that factions of the military could act to topple the leftist-populist Maduro and return the Venezuelan military to its more traditional role, as a guardian of Venezuela’s democracy.
“It’s not generally in the Venezuelan military’s ethos to want to seize power or to play the role of the go-to for the civilian political leadership,” says Brian Fonseca, an expert in international affairs and public policy at Florida International University in Miami. “But as the Venezuelan crisis deepens I think we could see a fracturing of the military,” he adds, “with some elements acting to force a political transition and ultimately return the military institution to its constitutional role.”
This week’s government reshuffle comes as protests against Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the country’s worsening food shortages turn ever more violent, with the death toll in recent weeks of protests reaching 74.
Indeed, some analysts say that in particular, Maduro replaced the general in charge of the National Guard after video showed security forces using live bullets against protesters, allegedly resulting in the death of a 17-year-old boy.
But others say Maduro’s motivations have nothing to do with reducing state violence against those marching in opposition of his rule.
A 'civil-military union'
“I don’t think Maduro is worried for one second about firing on civilians, although he may be trying to suggest he’s concerned about the civilian population,” says Mark Feierstein, who served as senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Obama National Security Council. “I think what he’s concerned about is his own survival.”
For Maduro, survival has entailed driving the country’s military ever deeper into not just the domestic security quagmire, but also into civilian functions like the economy and social welfare.
Lamenting the militarization of Venezuelan society at a briefing this week, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Andean, Brazilian, and Southern Cone Affairs, Michael Fitzpatrick, said that more than 2,000 generals on active duty are in charge of “virtually every sector and aspect of the economy.” And he said that what Maduro refers to as a “civil-military union” is better known by a more pejorative name.
“Others in Latin America sadly would know what to call such a regime – a junta,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
But regional experts say the regime in charge in Venezuela is not so much a “junta,” in the most familiar sense of a military government resulting from a coup. Rather, it’s following another Latin American model in which a government struggling to meet basic needs and supply services while maintaining security turns to the military – for its competence, but also as a means of ensuring the regime’s survival.
In other words, Maduro’s Venezuela is less Pinochet’s Chile and more Castro’s Cuba.
A stake in the regime's survival
“What we’re seeing is Venezuela emulating the survival mechanics of the Cuban regime, where the military was brought in as the vanguard of their revolution,” says Mr. Fonseca, a former marine who trained foreign military forces in both conflict and peacetime operations.
“They resort to the military to fill socio-economic roles not only because of a reputation for being able to fix things,” he adds, “but also because of their ability to use force.” Cuba’s military is estimated to control as much as 85 percent of the island’s economy.
Others see another crucial reason for regimes to give the military an expanding role in governance: by giving military officials a stake in the economy, especially, governments ensure that they have an interest in the regime’s survival.
“In many countries, the military is seen as the more capable institution among all the elements of the national government, so it’s not atypical to turn to them when things go bad,” says Michael Desch, an expert in civilian-military relations in governance at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“But another reason frankly is to invest the military in the current regime and in its survival,” he says, adding, “In the Venezuelan case I’d say that getting them involved in the oil sector in particular suggests that motivation.”
Professor Desch says Maduro is by no means alone in the world in “co-opting” the military. “It’s what we see going on in China today,” he adds. “A lot of countries with authoritarian or increasingly authoritarian regimes need the coercive support of the armed forces.”
Yet Desch and other experts caution that the expanded role an embattled leader offers the military can often turn out to have been a “poisoned chalice” that results in blood on the military’s hands and corrosive corruption that debilitates the highest-ranking officers.
And, some experts believe, it’s recognition of the unwanted repercussions of the military’s expanded role in civilian governance that could lead some in the Venezuelan military to rebel. In such a scenario, the experts say, that could tip the scales in favor of a political transition and a return to the democratic governance the military traditionally supported.
“I’m not so sure the Venezuelan military is the professional and competent entity it used to be. It’s been highly politicized, and the levels of venality and corruption we’ve seen in recent years have been extraordinary,” says Mr. Feierstein, now a senior adviser on Latin America at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington.
The US government has accused a number of Venezuela’s senior officers of involvement in the illicit drug trade, and has slapped targeted sanctions on a number of those officers as well as on the country’s vice president and several Supreme Court justices. The Trump administration is reportedly planning additional sanctions.
But Feierstein says he has no doubt that some in the military are “thinking seriously about their future and the political transition that we know lies ahead. I’m sure Maduro is concerned about that,” he adds, “and rightly so.”
Florida International University’s Fonseca says the government has recently stepped up a “purging” campaign across the military in an attempt at what even Maduro openly refers to as “coup-proofing.” With the memory of a short-lived 2002 coup against Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, still fresh, the military has detained dozens of junior officers accused of plotting against the government.
But Fonseca says he foresees a point where a growing force within the ranks will decide the country’s deterioration and the government’s repressive violence “is not sustainable” and will act to precipitate a political transition that reestablishes clear civil-military lines.
“Venezuela is bleeding out,” he says. “At some point, if other attempts to resolve this crisis continue to fail, someone’s going to step in to stop the bleeding,” he says. “At the same time, I think the aim will be to return the military to a more traditional role within a context of democratic governance.”