Loyalty or convenience: the forced marriage between Maduro and the military in Venezuela

The Trump Administration continues to rely heavily on the policy of sanctions with regards to Venezuela and its crisis. The latest Executive Order signed by President Trump initially thought to be an embargo has been interpreted by some analysts as a measure that protects the future assets of the much-awaited transitional government. They will need these resources to adequately confront the dire financial situation the country will most likely endure once democracy is restored.

The incrementalism of economic sanctions and its ability to fracture the Maduro-military alliance are being put to the test. After a series of measures imposed by the Trump administration, the pressure has finally reached Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle. However, the expectation that the offer to lift sanctions on those who abandon the regime (like General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, who broke ranks with President Maduro earlier this year) could lead to the promised split in the regime has proven to be unsuccessful. The hardening of sanctions has fallen short of provoking a major shakeup within the regime or the military.

The latest blocking measure taken against Maduro and its capability to push for change has been received with skepticism. It has raised serious concerns about the impact it would have on the already critical humanitarian crisis. The fact that the highest-ranking members of the regime are already under sanctions discourages them from abandoning Maduro, signaling that the promise to lift them is not enough reason to leave power. The lifting of sanctions and the promise of amnesty does not guarantee impunity. Amnesty makes reference to the forgiveness of civil, criminal, administrative, disciplinary or taxation accountabilities, but it does not exempt any serious crimes against humanity. Further, Maduro’s exit does not guarantee that they will continue to have privileges or maintain control of significant pockets of wealth that they secured under his regime. The pattern of individual and economic sanctions is considered to be impacting the whole country, and the consequences have cornered both, Maduro and the military, forcing them to keep their alliance.

How has Maduro succeeded in resisting the crisis? The economy in Venezuela started to show worrying signs before Chavez’s passing. The high oil prices did not deter the government in seeking external financing, becoming increasingly indebted to China, and in less measure, Russia.  The persistent policy of nationalization and statization, combined with the high levels of social spending, contributed to weaken the economic structure of the country and increase its clientelist social network. Consequentially, reports show that four-fifths of businesses in the country have closed since chavismo rose to power in 1999. Likewise, this policy is considered to be the underlying cause of the overwhelming humanitarian crisis.  Maduro has resisted the critical economic and humanitarian crisis thanks to the enduring support the armed forces continue to award him, and Chavez’s revolution as well, which can be summarized in power, resources and immunity. In spite of multiple accounts of failed or attempted coups against Maduro, military backing continues with no signs of change.

This support could only be explained by the structural changes Hugo Chávez placed upon the armed forces. The institution transformed its core mission to assume the role of supporting actor in the Bolivarian revolution, as Chávez successfully tied the military with the PSUV. The fear of a US-led military attack pressed Chávez to take measures to secure a strong military response. However, it was the quest for a tight grip of power with the guardianship of the military that was at the base of the policy. In exchange, certain state functions were handed over to the armed forces and lucrative business opportunities were made available. The state has even tolerated illicit economic activities (such as drug trafficking and contraband) and rent-seeking behavior. Ultimately, the state’s need to build a cohesive bloc with the military was part of the advice and strategy engineered by the Cuban regime, as some former officials have disclosed.

The backlash from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report, and the continuing sanctions from the United States and other governments, although have led to the isolation of the Maduro regime, have not been enough to provoke a fracture across the military. It is possible to link the nature of a compartmentalized military with heavy ties to the government and the ruling political party, to its inability in breaking ranks with the regime. The military has opted to remain on the government’s side, indicating distrust on the prospective of more lenient treatment, but even more out of fear for retaliation. Certainly, cases like the murder while in police custody of retired Navy Officer, Cap. Rafael Acosta Arévalo, discourage other members of the military disagreeing with the regime. This poses another inevitable question: Is the Maduro-military alliance: loyalty or convenience?

In the analysis of the nature of civilian-military relations under Maduro, the connection to the political project initiated by Chavez shouldn’t be overlooked. The intertwining of the military and the public administration has been at the foundation of a new social pact leading to the militarization of the state. This relationship is the safeguard that allows Maduro to remain in power. As long as the sole option for Maduro and the military is to leave power without impunity and economic guarantees, they will preserve their coalition. The intricated web of state-led economic activities and criminally-organized enterprises represents a more lucrative future for Maduro and the military than to forfeit power. To date, there is a sense of confidence in the military support for Maduro provided that the counter-offer remains to be a fragile amnesty agreement and ostracism.

In order to break the stalemate in the negotiation of a political agreement for a democratic transition, it will be necessary to offer a way out that implies a different outcome from the current scenario Maduro and the military are facing, and this will have a political cost for both, Chavismo and Opposition. The reluctance of the military to take Guaidó’s amnesty suggests that the Opposition needs to raise its offer and that it will take more than that to bring them to the idea of forsaking the economic opportunities, public administration privileged posts, and control of power they currently enjoy.

There is no ideal agreement, there is just the best possible outcome, and under the current circumstances, the humanitarian crisis demands sacrifices from all of the involved in the negotiations. The talks between the Opposition and the Maduro regime have many enemies, internal and external. The risk with the failure of the Norway mediation is that not only would it deepen an already devastating crisis, but it could also pave the way for a military transition presenting itself as a ‘stabilizing ‘ alternative if Maduro clings to power.


Edited by: Omar Ocampo

August 13, 2019



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