On Sunday a small band of Venezuelan soldiers staged a revolt at a military base in the city of Valencia and made off with weapons.
They were rebelling against what they called President Nicolás Maduro’s efforts to create a socialist dictatorship. That’s because last Friday Maduro convened an illegal new national assembly that plans to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution and give him sweeping new powers.
Polls show only one in five Venezuelans still supports Maduro, who’s widely blamed for Venezuela’s catastrophic economic collapse. But he can pull off his power grab because the military backs him. And it has proved it this year by killing scores of anti-government protesters
To help understand why, WLRN’s Tim Padgett sat down last week with Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. Fonseca is an expert on the Venezuelan military – and in his interview with WLRN he predicted the kind of barracks unrest Venezuela saw on Sunday.
WLRN: You co-authored a report for the U.S. Defense Department last year on Venezuela’s military culture. And in it you point out that Venezuela has long trained its armed forces to play a deeper social role in their country. How big a factor was that in the military coup attempt that eventually catapulted the late Hugo Chávez and his socialist or “Chavista” revolution to power in 1999?
FONSECA: I think the question you raise is a really important one. It sort of lends to this long history of the military having an important space in social development and social responsibility – internal stability, if you will, in Venezuela.
So I think they’re used to seeing the military occupy spaces – medical care or, as you saw over the last few years with the military taking a prominent role in the rationing of food – playing this important, almost, arbitrator between the government and society. The Venezuelan military hasn’t been involved in an interstate conflict since its independence in 1830…
Meaning it’s never had to fight beyond its borders…
Never had to fight beyond its borders, so it’s all been about internal stability. Hugo Chávez really sort of ushered in a military class that were part of the socialist party in Venezuela, much like you would find in Cuba, for example.
But how much of this is just raw economic corruption? Venezuela’s military brass is allegedly tied to drug trafficking, and Maduro has put the military in charge of food and other goods that are in desperately short supply in Venezuela. Has he bought the military’s loyalty?
You know, I think he’s certainly tied survival of the leadership within the military to survival of the regime…
And if the economy keeps collapsing…
Right. If you can’t pay your senior military officers in currency, you have to give them some other form of payment. So allowing them to take part in the illicit commercial sphere going on in the dark spaces of Venezuela, that’s been the outlet.
Vladimir Padrino is Venezuela’s defense minister. But is he the real power behind the country’s military or is it former military officer Diosdado Cabello, the intimidating hardcore Chavista boss whom many consider the real power behind the throne in Venezuela?
I think that’s a great point. I think Diosdado Cabello still holds considerable power within the military. But I wouldn’t underestimate the influence that Padrino has in terms of operational control over the military as an institution. And I think this is a really important point to make in terms of what we might think about going forward.
If the military institution fractures between those loyal to Nicolás Maduro and those for the opposition – military units pitted against military units – if those fractures occur, Padrino is going to have to make a decision: Do I allow my institution to fracture further by staying entrenched with the current socialist party – do we risk running into a full-fledged civil war – or do I keep the military institution together by seizing power and transitioning back to the democratic rules of the game?
And what it would take to trigger that scenario?
I don’t know what that line is, but I believe that line exists. Chávez really started bringing more poor people into the military, up and down the ranks. I think once you end up having those soldiers killing or repressing civilians from their own barrios, from their own communities, I think that’s when you’re going to start to see fractures occur.
But bottom line then: Do you see the military’s support for the socialist regime in Venezuela lasting more than half a century as it has in Cuba?
No, I don’t think the military is in this for the long term in terms of supporting the socialist party. I think that if the protests are sustained and the bodies continue to stack up – and the demographics of the bodies stacking up begin to resemble more of the rank and file within the military – then I think you’re going to see those fractures within the military expand.