The Venezuelan military is crucial to resolving the national crisis. Whatever the outcome in the country, the armed forces and the factions within them will play a decisive role.
The Venezuelan crisis has come to a head with the challenge presented by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. Three weeks in, the situation in Venezuela remains deadlocked. As a result, the Venezuelan military is likely to hold the key to its resolution.
Short of a negotiated agreement with Maduro to step down and hold new elections, a peaceful transfer of power along the lines envisioned by Guaidó and his supporters requires that the military – particularly the Army since it is the largest service and will have to enforce the transition process on the ground – abandon Maduro in favour of a temporary administration that schedules elections in the near future. Guaidó’s emissaries have been working to establish a dialogue with the armed forces, something that, at least with regard to the Venezuelan high command, has been rebuffed. That has not stopped his supporters from appealing to lower-ranking officers and enlisted personnel to join their cause, including using social media to make direct appeals to service members.
The nature of the Venezuelan armed forces makes for an interesting dynamic as it confronts the crisis. The Venezuelan military is well-organized and equipped, with skills-based training and promotion standards. But contemporary Venezuelan flag-rank officers are mostly corrupt Maduro cronies who are unlikely to lead troops in battle. They have been promoted out of ideological allegiance and allowed to skim money from the ministries and border commands that they control (which cover drug, people, petrol and arms smuggling routes as well as public coffers). This is the result of the evolution of the Venezuelan armed forces command under the Bolivarians – the regime of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez – from a politically neutral professional military to an ideologically-driven praetorian guard. Praetorian militaries are those that act in overtly political ways in defence of, or against, civilian authorities. When civilians are promoted to senior uniformed positions on patronage grounds, the military institution is seen as a defender of the regime rather than of the nation.
Given the loyalties of the high command, the soldiers that matter in the Venezuelan transition scenario are field grade and non-commissioned officers (NCO) because they command the enlisted soldiers who will do the actual fighting in the event violence breaks out. These officers are the core of what remains of military professionalism in the Venezuelan military, and bringing them together requires bridging the divide between two important groups within the army: constitutionalists who swear an oath to protect the constitution no matter who is president; and military nationalists who see themselves as saviours of the nation in a time of need. The latter include pro- and anti-Maduro factions, so it is not guaranteed that they will act in a unified fashion. The move towards consolidating the military approach to the crisis also involves overcoming horizontal cleavages between service branches and ideological factions, and vertical cleavages between ranks or military school graduating classes, something that often involves intra-institutional violence as a precursor to what follows.
If field-ranking officers and NCOs abandon support for Maduro, his loyalists in the Cuban-dominated intelligence, police and paramilitary services will resist the move. It is also likely that barring massive defections the National Guard – the agency, with a reputation for brutality, primarily responsible for domestic repression – and national militias, which number 150,000 in active service, will continue to side with Maduro. The militias have organised hundreds of small-scale neighbourhood resistance groups that are trained to use guerrilla tactics against any superior force, foreign or domestic. The scene is consequently set for mass violence and the possibility of prolonged conflict.
In order to avoid this, the military can opt to lay down its weapons and refuse orders to fight for either side. That is unlikely given the presence of Maduro loyalists in the armed-service ranks, militias and in the National Guard. Or the military can force Guaidó to back down on his presidential challenge, possibly in exchange for new elections and constitutional and political reforms. That is the most peaceful option, but it does not solve the economic and social problems in Venezuela that constitute the humanitarian crisis or the issue of foreign opposition to Maduro’s rule.
The armed forces have so far refrained from taking action for or against Guaidó and his supporters. But given the external and internal forces at play, the most plausible scenario is that Maduro will abdicate and new elections will be called under a military-backed – if not led – temporary administration. While potentially bloody, a pro-Guaidó military coup will be less violent than an external military intervention, where many erstwhile opponents of Maduro will rally against armed foreign interference. If it is revealed that Guaidó and his supporters have been receiving advice, money and logistical help from the United States (something that is widely believed to be true), that could backfire on his military and civilian allies and result in civil war. That prospect would deter the military from staging a coup explicitly in Guaidó’s favor, but not one that sets the terms and conditions for national elections administered by a neutral caretaker regime.
Whatever it does, the military will have to be united in its stand and be willing to demonstrate its resolve. That is easier over the short term if the field officers and NCOs side with their superiors in defence of Maduro. But given the circumstances, it is unlikely to hold over the longer-term and could lead to a direct confrontation with the United States if the Trump administration continues to insist on Guaidó’s assumption of the presidency.
However, the likelihood of a US-armed intervention is low. In spite of references to the United States sending troops to the Colombian-Venezuelan border in a contingency mission (say, to help secure a humanitarian evacuation corridor), such a deployment will not be enough to control all Venezuelan territory and will have difficulty subduing militias, paramilitary groups and military forces that even with defections and intra-service clashes will dwarf them. Armed intervention by the United States will need to involve a lot more than a limited reaction force. This will prove unpalatable to the US Congress as well as Latin Americans and, be it small or large, any intervention by the United States or a regional force is likely to reinforce rather than diminish support for the Bolivarians.
Continued military support for Maduro prolongs the crisis. Absent a negotiated compromise, the solution to it can best be found in an allegiance transfer by the military from the Bolivarians to a government pro tempore, perhaps led by military officers, that oversees the framework and process by which a new national government is formed. To get to that point requires overcoming the resistance of Bolivarians inside and outside the uniformed corps and convincing them that a peaceful transition is the only alternative. For Maduro’s supporters, the issue is simple: they can bow to the argument for peace or they can suffer the argument of force.
Dr Paul G Buchanan is the director of 36th-Parallel Assessments, an Auckland-based geopolitical and strategic analysis consultancy. He alternated US government and academic service prior to his arrival in New Zealand, where he continues to follow Latin American trends.
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