Venezuelan opposition leaders and other anti-government protestors flooded to the capital Caracas yesterday to demand a recall referendum on President Nicolás Maduro sometime this year. The military, while prepared to quell any violence, did nothing to suppress the protests. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy (2007-2010), who is now the Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University, about the Venezuelan military’s role in the country.
The Cipher Brief: What was the role of the Venezuelan military under former President Hugo Chávez? How has this role developed under President Nicolás Maduro’s presidency?
Ambassador Patrick Duddy: The military has long been an important part of the governing apparatus in Venezuela, particularly since President Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998. The military was especially important to President Chávez because he was a military man. Their importance to him was reflected in the number of positions that were given to military officers or former military officers. Many of the former military who had participated in the failed coup of 1992 – in which then-Lieutenant Colonel Chávez attempted to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez – subsequently held positions in the government during Chávez’s time in office. It is noteworthy that in the aborted coup against Chávez in 2002, the military temporarily removed him from office, but they also restored him just a couple of days later.
The military appears to be playing an even more prominent role in the government of Nicolás Maduro. There are 11 governors in the country right now, of the approximately 20 associated with the governing party, who are in fact former military, and there are nearly a dozen cabinet positions that are now being held by either active or retired military officers.
Early this summer, in a public act, Maduro essentially delegated to the Minister of Defense the role of managing the country’s economic portfolios involving the supply, importatation and distribution of food and other basic necessities. More recently, following the indictment in the United States of Nestor Reverol – the commanding general of the National Guard – Maduro named him Interior and Justice Minister. Maduro is clearly trying to bind the military as closely as possible to his administration and is looking for the military to help him solve some of the central problems in Venezuela right now.
TCB: What are the power dynamics between the military and President Maduro? Does the military have more power than the presidency in Venezuela?
PD: The more immediate question would be: Is President Maduro actually in a power-sharing arrangement with the military? Given the enhanced role of the military since the appointment of General Padrino López as the person to lead what the Venezuelans are calling the fight against the economic war being waged by the country’s enemies, arguably General Padrino has as much or more power over many of the key elements of government than President Maduro himself.
But that really doesn’t answer your question as to which of the two is more powerful. It’s important to understand that Chávez not only leaned heavily on the military, understanding their power in the country, but, following the failed coup of 2002 which temporarily removed him from office, sought to transform the military into an element of the Bolivarian Revolution. He tried to make the military’s allegiance to the Bolivarian Revolution was synonymous with loyalty to the country.
President Chávez was always very concerned that his tenure be recognized as democratically legitimate even as he became more authoritarian. I think that is also important, to a degree, for Maduro. That said, the Maduro and his allies in the government – both civilian and military –are becoming increasingly desperate. Last year they lost control of the national legislature. Polling shows that the public is now overwhelmingly in favor of change. To hang on to power, the government has resorted to ever more authoritarian tactics. This presents the government with a dilemma. The power players in the Venezuelan government understand that a wholesale abandonment of the country’s increasingly hollowed-out institutions of democracy – an abandonment of what remains of Venezuela’s representative democracy – would bring broad hemispheric censure. That is something I think both the military and the civilians within the administration would like to avoid.
The problem is, the constitution grants to the citizenry the right to hold a referendum to recall the president. The Maduro administration understands that if there is a referendum on recalling the president THIS year, the government would lose and new elections would have to be held immediately which polls suggest the government would also lose and lose badly. This affects the military directly because they have become so closely tied to the Bolivarian Revolution – as Chavez’s movement calls itself. If, on the other hand, a referendum is held after January 10, then even if Maduro is recalled, his Vice President would serve out the rest of his term. In other words, there would be a change in the person at the head of government but not in the party of government.
The administration has marginalized or attempted to ignore the opposition-led National Assembly. Those elements of the government which control the process for seeking a recall referendum are packed with Chavista loyalists – who will attempt to dramatically slow down any effort to hold a recall referendum this year. This has not so far involved the military.
We have, nevertheless, seen an erosion of Venezuela’s democracy and the human rights environment since Maduro was elected in 2013. But the administration has not explicitly abandoned the democratic process entirely. The national assembly has been ignored and marginalized but not dissolved. Meanwhile the economy has all but collapsed and support for the government even among its heretofore loyal base has all but evaporated. The government understands it is in real jeopardy if there is a recall. Maduro and his senior lieutenants have become increasingly threatening as the government’s sense of its own vulnerability has grown. The government – police, National guard et al – repressed demonstrators in 2014 with force but the situation then was somewhat more fluid and rejection of the government not as widespread. Moreover, the government’s tactics drew international condemnation. Yesterday’s demonstrations were substantial despite the government’s efforts to discourage participation. They were also largely peaceful. The question for many Venezuela watchers is now: to what extent would the military be willing to be complicit in the Maduro administration’s efforts to hold on to power, given evidence of overwhelming popular rejection of the administration – especially if those efforts require the uniformed services to apply repressive meaures against the Venezuelan people. It is not at all clear where this leaves the military. The uniformed services have prospered under Chavez and Maduro but there is much speculation about divisions within both the military and the civilian Chavistas. There is also a question of the extent to which the uniformed services are monolithic. Most observers see the National Guard, in particular, as entirely vested in the survival of the government but the national guard is, to some extent distinct from the more conventional armed forces.
TCB: You talked about how the military under Chávez was set up as part of the Bolivarian Revolution. Now, under Maduro, you say we’re seeing an erosion of democracy. Can you describe the current public perception of the military?
PD: The picture is mixed, but what is clear is that first Chávez and now Maduro have worked very hard – and to some degree successfully – to bind the military to the party – to what Chavez called the Bolivarian Revolution, that is, 21st century socialism. (It has also been true in recent years that any military figure who was unwilling to profess loyalty to the Bolivarian Revolution could not prosper in that military hierarchy.) To what extent the military is seen as an extension of the Maduro administration is less clear. Nevertheless, This is a moment of high hazard for the military. Recent polling suggests more than 80 percent of the country thinks things are in dismal shape and heading in the wrong direction. A full three-quarters of the country would, if the referendum was held tomorrow, vote to recall the president.
Another factor binding the miltary to Maduro and the rest of the Chavistas has been the government’s willingness to defend them, for the most part, from accustions of corruption, particularly accusations from abroad, particularly those which originate in the U.S. Many high ranking military may well see the survival of a Chavista administration as essential to their own well being.
So, it may have been in the military’s interest – as well as Maduro’s – to have General Padrino López take over the elements of the government intended to manage the supply of food and medicine. The risk is, of course, in taking on some of those responsibilities, is that the military will be seen as responsible for the failure to reverse the country’s downward spiral. Of course, there are also those who would argue the military is already complicit the in the failures of the government and by taking over the responsibility for meeting the government’s most urgent challenges, General Padrino Lopez is really making an effort to salvage the reputation of the military as well as assuring the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution.