Venezuela's 'king-maker' is fraying, and nobody knows what comes next

Venezuela military Nicolas MaduroVenezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to soldiers at a military exercise in Maracaibo, February 6, 2019.Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

  • International and domestic pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is building.
  • But the country's military has helped keep Maduro, widely considered an illegitimate leader, in office.
  • The military has hewed closely to the government for two decades, but it's feeling the strain.

Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido named himself interim president in January and has worked to oust President Nicolas Maduro, whose second term, which began January 10, has been widely rejected as illegitimate.

Since Guaido took his oath of office on January 23, he has been recognized by many as Venezuela's rightful leader, including the US and much of Latin America.

Read more: Trump leaves 'military option' on the table for Venezuela, which he calls as threatening as North Korea

But the military - regarded as Venezuela's "king-maker" - has helped Maduro retain power in the face of upheaval and isolation. With pressure growing on Maduro, it remains unclear what course the military will take.

Venezuela military soldiers Hugo ChavezVenezuelan President Hugo Chavez hands over aging Belgian FAL rifles, formerly used by Venezuela's military, to reserve soldiers at a ceremony in Fort Tiuna in Caracas, June 14, 2006.AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch

Venezuela's military has been bound closely to the government since late President Hugo Chavez, a former army captain, took office in 1999 and began to cultivate the force as a base of support. Many military leaders remain loyal to Chavez and his political movement, Chavismo.

Venezuela's armed forces now has about 2,000 generals - about half of them elevated by Maduro, who succeeded Chavez in 2013. Promotions have often been based on loyalty, and Maduro has tried to ensure fealty by forcing out dissenters.

Read more: Bolton's not-so-subtle note about sending 5,000 US troops to Colombia may have just been a bluff to spook Venezuela's embattled Maduro

Senior military officers have benefited from preferential treatment. Maduro has given military leaders control of food-distribution programs and the oil industry; some officers have used their authority to profit from illicit activities. Many military leaders likely see Maduro as the only alternative to a loss of status or to prosecution.

But not all Venezuelans in uniform have experienced the country's crises in the same way. Lower-ranking officers and enlisted troops are exposed to the same hardships as the country's civilians. While some officers have broken with Maduro, many more regular soldiers have shown signs of discontent.

Venezuela national guard riotVenezuelan national guardsmen detain a group of anti-government protesters during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, May 14, 2014.REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Small-scale rebellions have popped up in recent years, but they have been put down, and hundreds of troops have been detained for their protests. Others have simply deserted, which Maduro's government was trying to stop well before Guaido called on the military to switch sides.

A document signed by the head of Venezuela's immigration service on November 13 orders border guards to keep military personnel and reservists from leaving Venezuela without authorization, according to Bloomberg.

Read more: John Bolton says Venezuela's Maduro could end up in a 'beach area like Guantánamo'

A document signed by Venezuela's national-guard commander on December 21 and seen by Bloomberg indicated some 4,300 guardsmen have deserted since 2014 - all non-commissioned officers or enlisted personnel, representing about 6% of the force which handles domestic operations and has been on the frontline against protests.

'A guarantee of protection'

Venezuela national guard amnesty documentA Venezuelan national guardsman sets on fire a copy of a document regarding a proposed amnesty law for members of the military, police, and civilians, which was presented by supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido, outside a military unit in Caracas, January 27, 2019.Ronald Pena/El Pitazo via REUTERS

At the end of January, supporters of Guaido in Caracas distributed a pamphlet offering amnesty to members of the military who defected from Maduro's government.

"What you have, not with me but with us, is a guarantee of protection," Guaido told supporters and troops in Caracas. Earlier this month, the Lima Group, 11 members of the 14-member Lima Group, a bloc of Latin American countries, asked Venezuela's military to show "loyalty" to the opposition leader.

Read more: Officials keep talking about intervening in Venezuela, and it's drawing an ominous comparison

"The military leadership must understand that Maduro's days are numbered, the financial situation is unsustainable, and that they are on the wrong side of the Venezuelan public and of history," James Bosworth, an expert on the region and founder of political-risk advisory Hxagon, told Business Insider on Friday.

"Still, it is not particularly easy for the leadership to coordinate an effort against Maduro that leads to a good outcome for them," Bosworth added. "The military is trying to avoid any situation that leads to sectors of the security forces battling each other."

Venezuela MaduroVenezuela's President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a military exercise in Valencia, Venezuela January 27, 2019.Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Days before Guaido proclaimed himself interim president, about two dozen military officers attacked a national-guard post near the presidential palace in Caracas. They stole weapons, kidnapped officials, and posted a video calling for public support before security forces surrounded them.

Protests in support of the attackers broke out nearby, but the officers involved were of lower rank and had little ability to force change.

Read more: 'Different shades of utter resignation': Venezuelans fleeing hardship at home are finding more struggles abroad

But their actions reflect what many see as the most likely fault line. Antonio Rivero, an exiled Venezuelan who rose to the rank of general before leaving the country, told NBC News that he saw low- and mid-ranking officers turning on senior officers and the government.

"This is the scenario that is gaining more traction," he said at the end of January. "Any confrontation can lead to a civil war," Rivero cautioned, but such a conflict would likely be short, he said, as most Venezuelans want Maduro out.

John BoltonNational Security Adviser John Bolton holds a pad of note paper with a note reading &quot5,000 troops to Colombia" as he waits to address reporters as the Trump administration announces economic sanctions against Venezuela and the Venezuelan state owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2019.Jim Young/Reuters

The US has worked assiduously to undermine Maduro and bolster Guaido, focusing on opening divides within the military. National security adviser John Bolton, at the front of those efforts, has said sanctions could be removed for officers who break with Maduro.

In late January, Bolton said the US believed "the rank and file of the Venezuelan military is acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country. We think the junior officer ranks and the mid-level officer ranks are the same."

Read more: Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled their country - here's what it's like at ground zero of their exodus

In what appeared to be an effort to foment more uncertainty among military leaders, Bolton said the US was "aware of significant contacts between general officers of the Venezuelan military and supporters of the National Assembly."

A US official said this week that Washington was in direct contact "with members of the former Maduro regime, with military members." The official conceded that "those conversations are very, very limited" but said the US expected more to break ranks.

'This has created serious tension'

venezuela guaido maduroA composite image of Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who declared himself interim president; and President Nicolás Maduro, who refused to step down.Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters; Marco Bello/Reuters

Venezuela's military leadership does not trust Guaido or the US government, "meaning promises of amnesty and reduced sanctions have only a limited impact," Bosworth told Business Insider.

Time may also be on Maduro's side, according to Jose Antonio Colina, a former Venezuelan army lieutenant who fled to Miami in 2003 and now heads a Venezuelan exile organization.

"The possibility that the armed forces will completely disavow Nicolas Maduro and support Juan Guaido is becoming less likely as time goes by," Colina told NBC News at the end of January.

Read more: Hawkish GOP veteran convicted during Iran-Contra affair picked to run Trump's Venezuela policy

The military has remained on Maduro's side through years of turmoil, but that pressure, which is unlikely to abate, has strained the relationship between the men and women in uniform and their leaders.

"Because the military is so focused on coordination and acting as a unit, there is an intense focus on discipline and some severe punishments for anyone in lower levels considering defection or desertion. The commanders are also aware that morale is low and many of the enlisted and lower-ranking officers have zero loyalty to Maduro," Bosworth said.

"This has created serious tension that threatens the whole military institution."
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