Venezuela's Military: Both a Stabilizing and Destabilizing Force

Photo: AP

Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators flooded Venezuela’s capital Caracas yesterday to protest President Nicolás Maduro after three years of recession, extreme inflation, and a severe lack of basic goods. The protestors are asking for a recall referendum to be held this year, when an opposition politician has a chance of winning. If the referendum is held after January 10, 2017 and Maduro is removed from office, then his Vice President – a member of the United Socialist Party like Maduro – will take over, ensuring the Socialists retain power.

Government supporters also took to the streets yesterday in a series of countering protests. Extra police and troops were stationed around the city, in case violence broke out. Notably, the military did not suppress the demonstrations.

The Venezuelan military could be a force of stability or instability in the country. On the one hand, it is responsible for supplying food and medicine to an increasingly hungry and sick populace. On the other, the Maduro government is so reliant upon the military that it has the power to create significant instability (for example, in the form of a coup) in order to bring about future democratic stability.

The military has yet to confront the increasingly authoritarian President Maduro. In fact, in some ways, the military seems more intertwined with Maduro than it was with former President Hugo Chávez. This is due partially to the military’s new role following Chávez’s rise to power and partially to Maduro’s maneuvering to keep the military close.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy (2007-2010) explains that Chávez relied heavily on the military, understanding its power, but also “sought to transform the military into an element of the Bolivarian Revolution.” That means that much of the military identifies with the United Socialist Party (the product of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution) and, as such, wants to keep that party in power.

Likewise, Maduro wants to be on good terms with the military both for its political support and for the basic stability it provides through its power. Duddy, now Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University, comments that “the military appears to be playing an even more prominent role” under the Maduro government, compared to the Chávez administration.

Last month, Maduro appointed Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino López (pictured) to the head of the Sovereign Supply Mission, a food supply system. “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,” Harold Trinkunas tells The Cipher Brief.

Trinkunas, who is Director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution, explains that this “formalizes a role the military already has and also allows President Maduro to give the appearance of doing something about the shortages.” In this sense, the military is actively helping to stabilize a nation facing triple digit inflation and a serious scarcity of goods.

Still, Trinkunas points out that the Venezuelan military is “riven by multiple internal divisions,” including between those who believe in Bolivarianism and those who do not. As public discontent with the Maduro administration grows, it seems more and more likely the military will want to distance itself from the leader who many blame for Venezuela’s current economic crisis.  At the same time as it helps stabilize the country, it does not want to be remembered as complicit with a failed government that ran its country into the ground.

So while there has not yet been a coup attempt against Maduro in response to public discontent and in the name of future democratic stability, it is likely the military is becoming increasingly indifferent to, if not yet openly supportive of, Maduro’s removal, as long as the Socialist party remains in power. 

What may be most palatable for the military now is to continue its role as both a stabilizing and destabilizing force – continuing its work in distributing food and other basic necessities to a largely impoverished nation, while allowing Maduro to lead with an iron fist until at least January.