Now that anti-government protests in Venezuela have been crushed and President Nicolás Maduro has consolidated his power through dubious electoral maneuvers and a crackdown on democratic freedoms, some opposition leaders and international pundits have raised the possibility of a coup d’etat as the only realistic way to bring about regime change.
Julio Borges, head of the opposition-controlled congress, has called on the military to “break its silence”, adding that “the immense majority of officers are against the chaos that is taking hold in Venezuela”.
Writing in the Washington Post, law professor Ozan Varol declared: “The Venezuelan military is the levee that’s keeping the democratic movement at bay to protect the Maduro regime. Only if the military breaks can the river of democracy jump the banks.”
But many political analysts say a coup is unlikely due to a growing and mutually beneficial alliance between the Maduro government and the military. Amid the country’s worst economic crisis in modern history and polls showing that the vast majority of Venezuelans want the president to go, they say the armed forces have helped keep Maduro in office in exchange for a growing list of economic perks.
Ricardo Sucre, a military expert and former naval officer, says that ever since Hugo Chávez ushered in Venezuela’s socialist revolution in 1999, the government has promoted a so-called civic-military union in which troops and officers involve themselves in all aspects of national development.
A one-time army paratrooper, Chávez remained deeply involved in military affairs during his 14 years in power, weighing in on everything from promotions to the color of uniforms.
Maduro – a former bus driver and union leader – has no ties to the armed forces yet the civic-military partnership has deepened since he was elected president in 2013 following Chávez’s death from cancer.
For one thing, the ruling Socialist party was largely organized around Chávez. Under Maduro, the party has lacked structure and leadership and the armed forces have filled the power vacuum, says Rafael Uzcategui, who directs the Caracas human rights group Provea.
And amid rising unrest Maduro now relies on the armed forces to protect him by putting down street protests, says Phil Gunson, who is based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.
However, Gunson adds: “The military also needs Maduro because they would rather not rule themselves. They don’t want a uniformed general in the presidency because it looks bad and is kind of out of fashion. So, Maduro is a good front man. He makes life good for them. If you are a general and play by the rules you can make a lot of money.”
Now, active duty or retired military officers make up nearly half of Maduro’s cabinet and hold many other key positions. They are in charge of everything from arms procurement to steel production to food distribution. The armed forces even run a plant that produces bottled water.
But the most glaring sign of the military’s ascendancy came late last year during a shake-up at the vital state-run oil company, known as PDVSA. Oil accounts for about 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings.
Yet instead of choosing an industry veteran to run PDVSA, Maduro selected Manuel Quevedo, an active duty national guard general. Quevedo has no experience in the oil patch but won over the president by helping to break up anti-Maduro demonstrations in 2014.
For Maduro “political loyalty is much more important than technical knowhow”, Uzcategui says. “Competence is totally secondary and that’s one of the reasons why we are in the middle of an economic crisis.”
María Corina Machado, who heads the rightwing opposition party Vente Venezuela, insists that mid-level officers and rank-and-file troops are deeply affected by the crisis, which has led to hyperinflation, a collapse of the currency and chronic shortages of food and medicine. She says officers “often reach out to me to say: ‘We do not support what is going on. This is a disaster that has to be stopped.’”
But according to Sucre, the armed forces harbor little trust or respect for the political opposition, which is divided over leadership and strategy. That’s why, he says, “there is almost no chance of a coup.”
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