As demonstrators spread through Venezuela’s capital Caracas yesterday demanding a recall referendum of President Nicolás Maduro, the military, notably, did not suppress the demonstrations. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Harold Trinkunas, the Director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution, about the Venezuelan military and its power as a stabilizing or destabilizing force.
The Cipher Brief: What was the role of the military in Venezuela under former President Hugo Chávez? How has that changed, or has it remained the same under current President Nicolás Maduro?
Harold Trinkunas: Former President Chávez relied heavily on the armed forces to sustain his regime. Military officers were assigned to important leadership positions across a wide range of government ministries, not just those related to defense. Chávez relied on the armed forces to support the execution of government funded social “missions” tasked with alleviating poverty, building housing, distributing food, improving literacy and addressing a litany of other problems facing Venezuelans.
Chávez thoroughly politicized the armed forces, which constitutionally are supposed to be non-partisan, in favor of his regime. Many retired military officers went on to win elections to local and state office under the banner of Chávez’s party. So the armed forces were a core pillar in Chávez’s political movement.
Maduro has doubled down on this role for the military, but he is also more reliant on them to remain in power as his popularity dwindles and his government becomes more authoritarian. With the number of incidents of protest rising and increasing reports of looting of scarce consumer goods from stores, the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (one of four military services in Venezuela) has been called on to repress popular unrest more and more frequently.
TCB: How much power does the Venezuelan military have vis à vis President Maduro?
HT: The Venezuelan military is riven by multiple internal divisions, and not just traditional inter-service rivalry. There are cleavages between those who believe in the Bolivarian Revolution and those who do not; between those who have engaged in corruption and those who have not; between those associated with the trafficking of drugs from Colombia through Venezuela and on to Europe and the United States and those who are not involved. There are also generational gaps between junior, mid-ranking, and senior officers.
This means that even though Maduro is heavily reliant on the military to remain in power, he is somewhat buffered from being pressured by the armed forces because they lack internal coherence. Instead, individual factions may temporarily gain leverage over Maduro, such as those that support Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López or those associated with Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol, who was recently indicted in the U.S. for drug trafficking.
TCB: Last month, Maduro named the Defense Minister – General Padrino – as the head of the Sovereign Supply Mission – what’s the significance of this move?
HT: Venezuela suffers from very high levels of scarcity of consumer goods, a rapidly shrinking economy, and triple digit inflation. A shortage of foreign exchange has led the government to reduce imports by 40 percent, and this is significant in a country that imports two-thirds of its consumer goods. Basic products are in short supply and highly subsidized, so a thriving black market has developed in which goods bought at official prices are resold for much more.
The military has been assigned to control the country’s ports, borders, and food distribution system in an effort to tamp down on smuggling and black markets. The appointment of Padrino López as head of the Sovereign Supply Mission both formalizes a role the military already has and also allows President Maduro to give the appearance of doing something about the shortages.
TCB: How does the public view the military?
HT: Traditionally, the Venezuelan military was one of the two most respected institutions in the country, along with the Catholic Church. But as the government’s popularity dwindles, many in the public view the military’s role more critically. Public opinion suggests that distrust of the military is more concentrated in the middle and upper classes than among the poor and working class.
TCB: Is the military a stabilizing or destabilizing force in Venezuela?
HT: The Venezuelan military currently is a key pillar in maintaining a very tense lid of stability on what is a boiling pot of popular discontent. Some recent polls show that more than 90 percent of Venezuelans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
However, the military is well aware of the risks to its institutional reputation and the impact on its fragile internal coherence if it is called on to repress broad-based popular protests. It is one thing for the Guardia Nacional, which is a militarized national police force, to deal with scattershot (even if frequent) incidents of protest and looting. But if the police and Guardia Nacional are overwhelmed by wide scale disorder, the rest of the military might very well decide that Venezuela is ready for a change.