While Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro orders the arrest of a leading opposition leader and expels three U.S. diplomats amidst a growing domestic political storm, the real question about Venezuela’s future is what the military will do.
For more than a decade former president Hugo Chávez has bought the loyalty of the senior military leadership by allowing the generals to profit from a host of illicit activities, including cocaine trafficking. This has largely shielded the military elite from the burgeoning economic crisis that has brought skyrocketing inflation, a shortage of everything from toilet paper to basic foodstuffs, and rolling electrical blackouts to the general population – the factors driving the unrest.
The Cartel de los Soles, the military drug trafficking structure named for the suns that denote their status as generals (as stars do for U.S. generals) has tightened its grip on key nodes of the economy, such as the petroleum industry and major ports since Chávez died a year ago and Maduro’s unexpectedly narrow electoral victory to succeed him.
Unlike Chávez, who was a mutinous lieutenant colonel before he was president and therefore enjoyed a close bond with the military, Maduro has no standing with those in uniform. In order to buy their loyalty, according to Venezuelan sources who monitor the military, he has had to given the military leaders ever-larger slices of the cocaine corruption and other illicit activities.
This includes contraband through airports, seaports and land borders, but especially moving product for the Colombian FARC insurgents, one of the world’s most important cocaine cartels. The United States and European Union have designated the FARC as a terrorist organization and the United States has sanctioned several senior Venezuelan military and intelligence officials for their direct involvement with the FARC and its cocaine trafficking network.
The two big questions are: will the military leadership, if ordered to by Maduro, resort to violence to quell peaceful student-led protestors against an increasingly unpopular president to maintain their economic privileges? And even if the upper levels of the military command structure give the orders to shoot their own people, will the lower ranking soldiers on the street follow orders?
There is a strong feeling among Venezuelan military experts that the younger officers and soldiers on the street cannot be counted on to shoot down teenagers staging peaceful marches, even if the leadership gives the order.
Venezuela’s paramilitary groups, allied with the military, have years training with their Iranian counterparts, the basij, on how to control and intimidate crowds and incite crowd violence, as the Iranian forces showed to great effect in their 2009 presidential elections. Maduro has also learned from other totalitarian regimes how to shut off social media outlets and keep independent reporting out of access for most Venezuelans. These are useful short-term measures for repressive governments
But the determining power structure going forward will be the military. Maduro has proved to be a particularly inept leader in the wake of Chávez’s demise and the old governing coalition is splintering into different factions led by Maduro, legislative leader Diosdado Cabello and unraveling powerful retired military intelligence leaders. The opposition, led by university students, has shown surprising staying power on the streets. The military, armed to the teeth with billions of dollars in Russian and Chinese weapons bought by Chávez, has the wherewithal to crush the rebellion. The question is whether, in times of great uncertainty, they side with the people or with a government that will have to rely on increasingly harsh repression to survive.
Douglas Farah is a national security analyst in Latin America, focusing on corruption, failed states and transnational organized crime. He was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for 20 years and has worked in and followed Venezuela since 1990. He is the president of IBI Consultants and a senior non-resident associate of the Americas Program at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank.