Published On: Tue, Mar 13th, 2018

U.S. sanctions and worries of a coup erode Maduro’s control of Venezuelan military

CARACAS - When military counter-intelligence officers went to Fort Tiuna in Caracas on March 2, they found the Ayala Battalion's Russian-made armored vehicles loaded with ammunition, in violation of regulations.

The battalion's commander was arrested and now faces charges of treason, as do five lieutenant colonels.

That same day, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez went to Fort Tiuna and ordered all Military Academy cadets to leave immediately. His extraordinary visit was sparked by fears of an insurrection, military sources indicated.

Two days earlier, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had ordered 24 officers expelled from the armed forces, including collaborators of the late President Hugo Chávez. He also considered seizing the passports of National Bolivarian Police members to try to stem the massive defections within the institution. Both steps increased the already deep discontent within Venezuela's security forces.

Those are just the most recent indications that Maduro is losing the loyalty of its military officers amid an economic collapse that has brought hunger to the armed forces, and the possibility of economic sanctions and even trials of officers for human rights violations.

Recent signals from Washington that it would accept a military coup against an authoritarian regime with links to drug trafficking also have been fueling the uncertainty among security forces.

Venezuelan sanctions

It's the economic sanctions on Venezuela that are having the biggest impact on the loyalty of officers, said Rocío San Miguel, a respected authority on the armed forces. She's a lawyer and head of Control Ciudadano, a non-government organization in Caracas.

“The sanctions are affecting the uncertainty, the restlessness facing these people, including generals and admirals,” she said. “How long can these people remain submissive and loyal to the revolution when the sanctions may even be tightened in the short run?”

The U.S. government, responding to the Maduro regime's systematic dismantling of democracy and growing complaints of human rights abuses, has been slapping sanctions on key government officials.

The sanctions, which Canada and Europe have started to adopt, freeze the foreign bank accounts of the sanctioned individuals and cancel their visas.

The security forces' support for the regime could bring even worse consequences for the officers because complaints of human rights abuses have started to be filed with international courts.

“We recently had an important development that has not been analyzed much,” said San Miguel. “It was a statement by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court that although there is no open case against any Venezuelan right now, the prosecutor is evaluating the situation in Venezuela and the Philippines.”

“That puts the Venezuelan military commanders in trouble. It's not a check mate, but it's a check that they understand perfectly well because of its possible reach, because of what an international criminal jurisdiction means and because of the opening of cases against them,” she added.

Economic crisis

As well as facing the risk of winding up in jail, the Venezuelan military is also being hit hard by the economic crisis affecting virtually everyone in the South American country.

Generals who support the regime have accumulated enormous fortunes because of widespread corruption, but those opportunities for enrichment have become less common as the economic crisis spreads.

Experts have said the economic crisis is suffocating mid-level officers, because many of them depend solely on their salaries to make ends meet.

Officers with direct command of troops are the hardest hit. The salary of a colonel in command of a battalion is about 5 million bolivares per month — less than $25.

The restlessness within the armed forces and the police can also be seen in the high number of desertions, said Antonio De La Cruz, executive director of the Inter American Trends consultancy in Washington.

Hundreds of army and National Guard soldiers have deserted this year and the same is happening within the national police, one of the factors that led Maduro to consider taking away their passports.

Washington’s message

Messages from Washington are also stoking tensions.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was ousted Tuesday, said recently that he expected changes in Venezuela soon, and added that change in the South American country had been traditionally brought about by the armed forces.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an influential player in U.S. policy toward Venezuela, has been far more direct.

“The world would support the armed forces in Venezuela if they decided to protect the people and restore democracy, removing the dictator,” Rubio wrote on his Twitter account.

“It is always noble to conspire against a tyranny,” Rubio wrote in another post, quoting Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar.

Messages like those are having an impact on military officers, especially those who may think that the time for change in Venezuela has come, said De La Cruz.

“These messages are filtering through the military. And they, combined with the economic crisis, are inciting the military to act and eroding Maduro's control of the armed forces,” he added.

The sense that something is brewing is clearly worrying the top leadership in the Maduro regime.

The government has an effective military counter-intelligence operation, and usually officers are closely watched. But one of its major problems is the perception that dissatisfaction and repudiation of the regime is already a generalized phenomenon.

Trying to send a message that treason will not be tolerated, Maduro issued a decree in February expelling 24 officers from the armed forces, including Gens. Raul Baduel, who is in jail, and Herbert Garcia Plaza, exiled in Washington.

The regime also has continued to arrest soldiers and police on charges of treason, and more than 100 members of the armed forces are currently in prison on such charges.

But Maduro's crackdowns are having the opposite effect, said Garcia Plaza.

“They are firing blindly. And by firing blindly, they increase the internal unrest. They are improvising actions, arresting officers without hard information,” he said.

“The military ship is taking on water. And what's most worrisome to the government is that the dissatisfaction has reached the level of the lieutenant colonels,” he added. “That's a level that commands troops and because of that, it is difficult to replace.”

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