Venezuela’s military is on edge, and it could be the wildcard in the country’s deepening crisis

Photp: Carlos Becerra/ AFP/ Getty Images.

Venezuela’s deep crises took a more intense turn on Sunday, when a group of dissident soldiers attacked a military base in the city of Valencia, west of the capital, Caracas.

The Venezuelan government said two people were killed in the “paramilitary” attack on the base, carried out by former and active army officers and civilians.

Government forces repelled the attack, but several of the assailants were able to get away with nearly 100 assault rifles and several grenade launchers.

Two people were killed, including one of the assailants and an opposition activist who was part of a demonstration that gathered near the base to support the attackers inside.

“The scoundrels have been defeated,” Army chief Gen. Jesus Suarez said. President Nicolas Maduro, who called the group “mercenaries,” said they headed straight for the base’s weapons cache, with about half the group fighting soldiers for three hours before being subdued. The attack was followed by a nationwide manhunt for those involved.

The attack came around the same time a group of armed men in military fatigues released a video in which they said, “We declare ourselves in legitimate rebellion, united more than ever with the valiant state of Venezuela, to disavow the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro.”

Local media said the spokesman who appeared on the video was Capt. Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a dissident officer from the country’s national guard who has been wanted since 2014, when he was accused of a plot to overthrow Maduro.

“We don’t recognise the tyranny of assassin Nicolas Maduro,” Caguaripano said on the video, adding that the group’s call for an uprising was not an attempt to launch a coup, but rather a call for “civic and military action to re-establish constitutional order.”

Other members of the country’s security forces have publicly rebelled against the Maduro government in recent months.

Giomar Flores, a low-ranking naval officer, fled to Colombia and released a video in June calling on the military to uphold the constitution.

Flores, 25, had been in charge of policing food lines in Falcon state, which turned him against the government.

“I decided my future was worth more than a bag of food,” he told the Associated Press.

That same month, a rebel police commander seized a helicopter and flew over government buildings in Caracas, firing shots at the Interior Ministry and dropping grenades on the Supreme Court. The government called the pilot, Oscar Perez, a “psychopath” and members of the opposition suggested it could’ve been a government plot.

Perez posted a video of himself in front of four hooded armed men and claimed to represent a coalition of security and civilian officials rising up against “tyranny,” but there were few signs he had a large base of support.

These events have come amid a period of protests that have left at least 120 people dead since the end of April. Thousands have also been arrested during those protests. This month, the government convened a widely condemned constituent assembly that ousted the attorney general and declared itself superior to all other branches of government.

Some members of the national guard, which has led the government’s effort to police the protests, have admitted that they are exhausted by the work and are both impoverished and hungry, but most remain impassive while on duty, according to Reuters.

Even with widespread discontent among the public and signs of it among law-enforcement and military bodies, it’s not clear that a large-scale revolt — like the failed one led by Hugo Chavez, then a lieutenant in the army, in 1992 — will emerge.

The opposition has called on members of the military to break from the government, as it has in the past, but the main opposition coalition has struggled to present a coherent strategy.

“There’s lots of unease, but they can’t provoke a political change without a clear horizon of what comes after Maduro,” Hebert Garcia Plaza, a former army general who sought exile in the US in 2015, told the AP.

The scale and depth of any rifts in the military remain unclear.

And while a united military could act as a “king-maker” among those vying for power, divisions within it could benefit the government in the short-term.

Much of the 150,000-strong military’s leadership is wed to the government, through both personal interest and ideological background.

“Chavez engaged in a very deep effort, deep program to change basically the entire ethos of the military, from it being far more aligned with a Western mentality of subservience to civilian factions to far more in line with the aims of the government,” Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider in early July.

“And as he also introduced more and more ideas about socialism in the 21st century, there was a far greater sense of the mission of the military being … more aligned with socialist impulses,” Velasco said. Chavez coupled that effort with a purge of dissidents and promotion of loyalists.

Maduro has also promoted nearly 900 officers to the rank of general or admiral since he took office in mid-2013. Those generals enjoy special privileges, including better pay, favourable exchange rates, and control of the food supply. Current or retired generals also hold 11 of the country’s 23 state governorship and 11 of its 30 ministries.

A number of high-ranking officers have also been linked to drug trafficking and other criminal activities — such as those allegedly in the Cartel of the Suns or those suspected of directing scarce food products to the black market for personal gain.

Venezuela Maduro military politics
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, second from the left in the back row, with militia members during a military parade in La Guaira, May 21, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Maduro has come to depend on those officials to keep him in power, and for many of them, loyalty, privilege, and the desire to avoid prosecution are major reasons not to break with the government.

“The military has hijacked Maduro and he has hijacked the military,” Venezuelan history professor Margarita Lopez Maya said in an interview in spring 2016. Despite opposition promises not to pursue them if it took power, “many would rather trust the devil they know than the one they don’t,” Garcia Plaza, the former general, told the AP.

Many of Venezuela’s lower-ranking troops have not accrued such privileges and are more exposed to the hardship that has afflicted the majority of Venezuelans in recent years.

Enlisted men “are suffering from the conditions of everyone else,” Velasco, author of “Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela,” told Business Insider.

“They have more access to food and services than the rest of the population, but they come from barrios and they see how their people in those barrios are struggling,” he said. “And so to the extent they are rising up, or they would rise up, it would be, again, more out of desperation.”

“The armed forces today are like a snake, whose head is the top command that sadly is subordinated to the regime,” Flores, the naval intelligence officer who defected to Colombia, told the AP. “If you cut off the head, you’ll find us the troops.”

The Maduro government has secured the loyalty of many in military through enticements, but it also keeps an eye on the mood and actions of those in uniform in order to preempt any dissent.

Between the start of protests in late April and mid-June, at least 123 members of the country’s armed forces have been detained, including officers and enlisted men from all branches. Nearly 30 had been arrested for deserting or abandoning their posts, almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination, and most of the rest for theft.

“This shows low morale and discontent and, of course, economic necessity,” a former army general said of the detentions in early July, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals.

“It’s very hard to create critical mass without being found out,” Ivan Briscoe, head Latin American analyst for the International Crisis Group, told the AP. “In an era of instant digital communications, authorities can be alerted to the risk of destabilization very quickly.”

In the face of such obstacles, a small-scale campaign of resistance is more likely.

Garcia Plaza told The Wall Street Journal that active-duty officers had told him the attackers at the base in Valencia had escaped with nearly 200 40 mm grenades and seven shoulder-held grenade launchers.

With that kind of armament, he said armed groups could soon appear.

“You should expect to see smaller uprisings instead of major conspiracies in Venezuela,” Harold Trinkunas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times. “It’s difficult to coordinate, the military is watched closely, there is a lot of fear of being denounced if you say anything against the government.”

“When the right of political expression is stolen from you, the only thing left is insurgency,” Garcia Plaza said.