Venezuela’s military emerges stronger during crisis

By JIM WYSS | Miami Herald | Published: August 21, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (Tribune News Service) —Venezuela’s opposition has promised to hold a huge demonstration in the capital Sept. 1, demanding a presidential recall during a deep political and economic crisis that has many going hungry and emotions on edge.

One question looms: Will the military allow the protest?

“We’re betting that it will be the largest gathering in the country’s history, and the armed forces are going to have to choose,” said opposition deputy Armando Armas. “Are they really on the side of the people and the constitution?”

No one knows for sure whether the military will stand by as people are bused into Caracas to exercise their right to peaceful dissent. But many Venezuelans fear the armed forces are likely to close ranks around the administration and do their best to keep the protesters from turning into a meaningful mass.

The military has many reasons to support President Nicolas Maduro, including duty, prestige and perks. They have their own food distribution systems, so they don’t have to suffer through the daylong lines that average citizens face. And they also have their own hospitals — presumably ones that aren’t lacking medicine and supplies.

Analysts say the military’s privileges and future are so tied to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela that they’ve lost their primary function as defenders of the Constitution.

The military has so much power, and so many economic and political interests, that “we’re living in a barracks nation,” said Luis Alberto Butto, director of the Latin American Center for Security Studies at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.

Eleven of the country’s 20 ruling-party governors are ex-military, and 12 Cabinet positions are also in the hands of either active or retired military officers. The military owns television stations, cargo companies, insurance firms, import-export enterprises and other businesses.

“The military is a preponderant force, politically, economically and in the corporate world, and they’re out to defend their interests,” Butto said. “Under these circumstances, democracy is something of a myth, a symbol. It’s not real. And that’s Venezuela’s reality right now.”

Since Hugo Chavez, a former tank commander, won the presidency in 1999 and brought his colleagues with him, the military’s star has risen. When Maduro — a former bus driver and union organizer — succeeded Chavez’s successor in 2013, many wondered what would happen to the military’s power. Maduro himself, in December, talked about the need to “demilitarize” the administration.

That never happened.

Maduro last month appointed Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the defense ministory, to run the “Sovereign Supply Mission,” which has the task of ending the country’s food and medicine shortages. In addition, he ordered all the other ministries be “absolute subordinates” to Padrino’s new office.

By making Padrino responsible for the country’s most sensitive issue ––the lack of food and medicine–– it puts the military on the hook for the protests arising from the problem.

There are also darker reasons for the military to support the status quo. For years, there have been rumors and allegations that the armed forces are deeply involved in the drug trade, contraband and black market currency sales.

This month, Gen. Nestor Reverol, the former head of Venezuela’s counternarcotics agency, was indicted by federal prosecutors in New York on charges of trafficking drugs to the United States. The next day, Maduro named him interior minister.

Tuesday, Venezuela sentenced 10 people, including three national guard members, to 22 years in prison for their roles in shipping 3,000 pounds of cocaine to Europe on an Air France flight in 2012.

In a sense, the rot is understandable, said Jose Antonio Colina, a former army lieutenant who is a vocal government critic living in Miami. A captain in the army makes about $33 a month, he said.

“A military salary won’t even buy you food, so they’ve had to rely on these networks of corruption,” he said. .

Those who do well at the corruption, he said, “live like kings in a destroyed country.”

Colina said there was a time when the military was seen as an apolitical counterbalance to the executive branch. But that’s no longer the case, as the armed forces have been distilled into a pro-administration force. (Since 2007, the military’s motto has been “Fatherland, socialism or death. We will win!”)

“Anyone who doesn’t identify with the regime, and doesn’t shout its slogans, gets sent home without a rank or is sent to the most isolated parts of the country where they can’t do anything,” Colina said. “That’s why Maduro, despite his lack of popularity and all the times he’s screwed up, is still supported by the corrupt armed forces.”

The opposition is demanding a recall this year. But if a recall vote happens after Jan. 10, Maduro’s chosen vice president would finish his term through 2019. For the military, that might be the least disruptive scenario.

©2016 Miami Herald
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