Is Dissent Really Growing Within Venezuela’s Military?

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Isolated displays of dissidence from within Venezuela’s armed forces have fueled speculation of a growing divide between the different ranks of the beleaguered nation’s military. But potential fractures in what is the most important pillar of support for President Nicolas Maduro’s regime could appear elsewhere.

A captain of the Bolivarian National Guard in Carabobo state, surrounded by a group of armed men in military fatigues, called Maduro’s government “murderous tyranny” in an August 6 recording, reported the New York Times. He urged the Venezuelan people and the opposition to rise up and come together to restore “constitutional order.”

Even as the video calling for rebellion was released, a different group of around 20 men who authorities claimed were mutinous soldiers attacked a military base in Paramacay, in the city of Valencia, for three hours, with half eventually managing to escape with stolen weapons.

These incidents could signal a growing divide between the military’s upper echelons and rank and file troops, an expert consulted by the New York Times argued. Many of the military elite are benefitting from the profits of criminal activities and the systematic pilfering of the state, whereas low-level foot soldiers are sent in to do battle each day with protestors and suffer the same economic hardships as the nation’s long-suffering people. 

The support of the military is fundamental to the survival of Maduro’s regime, and the Venezuelan president has increased the number of members of the armed forces in government since he took over following the death of Hugo Chavez. Around half of his 32 government ministers are now current or former members of the military.

The armed forces have also been handed complete control over the importation and distribution of the basic food and medicines that so many Venezuelans lack as a result of the political and economic crisis ravaging the country. This has allowed the military to expand its contraband and illegal activities from the sale of government subsidized fuel across the shared border with Colombia and cocaine trafficking to also include food trafficking, according to a 2016 Associated Press report.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite these small signs of rebellion within Venezuela’s armed forces, there isn’t enough evidence of mounting differences between low-level soldiers and military generals, according to an expert consulted by InSight Crime. 

In the future, cracks within the institution are most likely to be sprout in the form of conflicts between groups with different economic and political interests, said Rocío San Miguel, a Venezuelan lawyer specialized in military issues and director of the human rights advocacy group Control Ciudadano.

Rocio told InSight Crime that no more than four individuals in the video released on August 6 were actual members of the security forces — the rest were civilians, dressed in military fatigues. One out of the four deserted a year ago, and another three years earlier. While not completely ruling out the possibility of a divide, San Miguel argued that the men in the video were not representative sample of the military’s low ranks.

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“Other possible rupture lines … in the future are the ripples of the struggle between the different economic and political power groups, associated with legal and illegal businesses,” San Miguel explained, before noting another potential source of tension — that between the “Chavistas” in support of the current constitution, and the “Maduristas” in favor of its rewriting by the controversial Constituent Assembly.

Either way, San Miguel argues that focusing on the dynamics between the lower and higher echelons of the armed forces is misguided.

“In order to measure the possibility of a military rebellion in Venezuela, the focus must be on the analysis of the behavior of the middle ranks. Not of the high or low ranks. And much less on the leadership of deserters or retired officials that do not have the possibility of leading an insurrection.”

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