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The 'king-maker' keeping Nicolas Maduro in power is starting to crack - here's why Venezuela's soldiers are breaking ranks, in their own words

Mar 3, 2019, 00:47 IST

Venezuelan Bolivarian Guardsmen stand guard at the Tienditas International Bridge that links Colombia and Venezuela, near Urena, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. As humanitarian aid kits were being packed into individual white bags in the city of Cucuta, just across the river from Venezuela, U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders appealed to the military to the let the aid through. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)Associated Press


Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has been recognized as interim president by dozens of countries, said Friday that 600 military personnel had defected in the week since Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered them to block the entry of aid sent by the US as part of an effort to oust him.

Since 2014, some 4,300 members of the country's national guard - all non-commissioned officers or enlisted personnel, representing about 6% of the force - have deserted, according to a document signed by the guard's commander in December.

The military has been described as Venezuela's "king-maker" - a force that has kept Maduro in power amid deadly protests and international opprobrium.

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


But that support is not total.

Many senior military leaders have personal and financial interests at stake - protecting special privileges, like higher pay, and avoiding prosecution for involvement in illegal activity, like drug smuggling. Junior officers and rank-and-file troops, however, have no such interests.

"Many, many low-level former police and military figures are among the over 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the country" over the past several years, Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider. "What is new about this latest wave is the rate of defections."

In recent days, some of the troops who have turned on Maduro have explained why.

Venezuela's military has been sent to repress numerous protests in recent years — mainly the national guard, which handles domestic operations. The February 23 effort by the opposition to move aid over the border was no exception, but for some guardsmen, it was also an opportunity.

"I was tired of people seeing me as just one more of them. I'm not," national guardsman Sgt. Jorge Torres told the Associated Press, referring to Maduro's government.

Source: the Associated Press

Torres was one of nine defected guardsmen who spoke to the AP, saying they were ordered to prevent aid from crossing the border. Fearing reprisals by their commanders — including jail or torture — some complied, launching tear gas at protestors.

Source: the Associated Press

Torres, a driver, had access to armored vehicles, which he and others used to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge to reach Colombia, breaking through barricades and hitting a woman in one of the most dramatic scenes on February 23. The woman wasn't seriously hurt, but Torres stopped, helped her to an ambulance, and surrendered.

Source: the Associated Press

Hardship was a motivating factor. Sgt. Jose Gomez, a father of two, said that two months ago he watched his newborn son die within 15 minutes of birth because the hospital did not have oxygen. Torres had an aunt who died of cancer and an uncle of a curable stomach infection. "That's what pushed me to make this decision," he said.

Source: the Associated Press

Sgt. Isaac Gonzalez, a member of Venezuela's navy, told The Wall Street Journal he left Puerto Cabello, the country's largest naval base, a few days before February 23, driven away by anger over the country's shortages — in his case, the lack of a specific kind of aspirin his 2-year-old daughter needed.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

"They say we are not beggars, but there is no medicine in Venezuela," Gonzalez told The Journal, referring to Maduro's refrain when rejecting aid.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Guardsman Sgt. Javier Gonzalez said the thought of his 9-month-old son suffering without milk or diapers helped him overcome the fear of being killed if caught defecting. "I deserted for the life of my son. We're working for a salary that doesn't stretch to anything. We can't live in misery. Enough, we're tired," Gonzalez, 28, an eight-year veteran who earned about $13 a month, told Reuters.

Source: Reuters

"You know that in your own home you don't even have a kilo of rice," a woman soldier, who defected and requested anonymity out of fear for the safety of children she left behind, told the AP. "And I'm supposed to stay here fighting, why?"

Source: the Associated Press

"In the morning, an arepa, and that’s it," Ignacio Cruz, a army noncommissioned officer, told The Journal, referring to a kind of Venezuela corn pancake. "Lunch is rice with some sauce. It's not so much the bad quality of the food but the small amount."

Source: The Wall Street Journal

"I voted for Hugo Chavez and believed in his government project," a 12-year veteran identified as Daniel told Al Jazeera. "But since his death [in 2013], the country's situation changed a lot, and it quickly became clear that the project wasn't going anywhere. I've never believed in Maduro, even his way of speaking, he says such stupid things, and he wasn't the one to take control of the country."

Daniel, 31, told Al Jazeera he was the first to defect on February 23, driving a military vehicle through an illegal passageway near the Simon Bolivar Bridge.

"I didn't go across the bridge because I thought the pro-government armed groups might have lynched me — the ones that were throwing petrol bombs and shooting at people — so that's why I crossed through the ditch," he said.

A 23-year-old guardsman, identified as Ricardo, told Al Jazeera that Chavez had inspired him to enlist, but he had deserted on February 23 out of anger and frustration. "They'd threaten us. If we weren't part of their political party, they'd lock us up," he said of Maduro’s government.

Source: Al Jazeera

"We realized that it wasn't what we wanted, so we got out," Wilfredo, a 21-year-old sergeant major in the national guard who walked off his base and into Colombia on the night of February 23, told The Washington Post. "They just sent us to repress people who in reality weren't doing anything against anyone."

Source: The Washington Post

"I think 90% of the special forces are in favor of this tyranny falling. But for fear, terror, doubts, they don't stop supporting it," said William Cancina, a member of Venezuela's special forces who told The Post he made arrangements to cross into Colombia and meet a police contact.

The FAES — the Spanish acronym for the Venezuelan national police's Special Action Forces — were created in July 2017 by Nicolas Maduro "to fight crime and terrorism" but have been accused of extrajudicial killings and other abuses.

Source: The Washington Post

Sgt. Omar Flores, who deserted the army in January, told The Journal that soldiers suspected of disloyalty faced physical punishment — including being buried up to their heads. "My comrades remain there because of the terror," he said. "Deserters are commonly killed or tortured to death."

Source: The Wall Street Journal

At the border with Brazil, where the opposition also tried to enter Venezuela with aid, Sgt. Alexander Sanguino Escalante, a national guardsman, was shot by fellow guardsman and filmed while laying on the floor of a vehicle. One of the things he was heard saying was thanking Brazilians for their help.

Source: El Cooperante

Gonzalez, the eight-year veteran guardsman, said many others wanted to defect but feared Venezuela's intelligence forces. "They're going to do it. I have lots of colleagues writing to me and they are motivated. They just need a little push,” he told Reuters in Cucuta.

Source: Reuters

The latest wave of defections have come more rapidly than in the past. "Maduro and the generals are aware of this, and desperately trying to shore up the standard of living of mid- and low-level military personnel even as the country descends further into economic collapse," Ramsey said.

While hundreds of rank and file troops have fled, very few senior leaders have broken with Maduro — a trend that suggests the near-term chances of Maduro and his government being forced out are still low.

It's hard to gauge the exact sentiments of military leadership, Ramsey said. "There is reason to believe the military command is certainly unhappy with Maduro, but their inaction so far suggests they're unwilling to depose him outright."

"However I think it's more likely that they will pressure him from behind the scenes to accept an electoral solution, thus giving Chavismo a graceful exit and guaranteeing a political future," he added, referring to the political movement created by Hugo Chavez.

The US has also continued to pressure Maduro and his associates, sanctioning scores of political figures, military officers, and others tied to the regime.

Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Venezuela's defense minister, reacted to another round of such sanctions on Friday, saying he had sent a list of generals and admirals to the US Treasury Department "to facilitate the work of 'sanctioning' by quotas the revolutionaries defending the constitution and national sovereignty."

Gonzalez said he and his wife, also a national guard sergeant, had defected to Cucuta with their baby and that they were willing to go back. "It's never too late to take the step. If our President Guaido is supporting us, we'll support him," he said. "If we must form units here to plan the takeover of our country we'll do it."

Source: Reuters

Motivating factors — poverty, political discontent, repression — needed to spark an insurgent movement are all there, said Sergio Guzman, director of political-risk consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis. But "it doesn't seem that there is an enabling environment internationally to start arming the Venezuelan opposition."

Freddy Bernal, a member of Maduro's government, claimed on Saturday that defected soldiers in Colombia were planning a violent incursion with the support of the government there and the US.

But supporting such a movement would be a bad look for Colombia, which has long accused Venezuela of giving rebel groups safe haven, Guzman said. "I think that the Duque government has been careful not to promote any actions to favor the Venezuelan opposition that are not backed up by the international community."

Colombia has also expelled Venezuelans deemed to be security risks, including a woman who identified as a member of the national guard but was suspected of trying to gather intelligence on Venezuelans in Colombia on behalf of the Venezuelan national police.

"I don’t think anyone is seriously considering organizing and arming these deserted troops," Ramsey said, adding that invasion threats were unlikely to end the military's backing of Maduro. Bringing about that shift, he said, will require the opposition and its backers to give the forces that have kept Maduro in power "a way to see their interests reflected in a return to democracy."

"As much as it may not want to, the opposition is going to have to start to talk about actually sharing power with Chavismo and the armed forces," Ramsey said.

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