Cocaine, payola: How Maduro keeps Venezuela's top military brass in line
By PATRICIA LAYA AND ANDREW ROSATI | Bloomber | Published: January 25, 2019
Vladimir Padrino is Venezuela's defense minister. Gerardo Rangel is a major general in the army. Nestor Reverol is a former National Guard commander who oversees the Interior and Justice Ministry.
They are also, according to the U.S. Treasury, drug runners and graft-schemers who operate within the criminal enterprise that is the Nicolas Maduro regime.
Money laundering, fraud, illegal mining and more allegedly form the bedrock of this business, which is what critics contend is at the heart of the powerful bond between the military and Maduro. The clear understanding, as IHS Markit analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos put it, is that "if Maduro falls, they fall."
Which is why Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader who claims he is now the legitimate president of the country, faces such an uphill battle in trying to get top military brass to turn on their commander-in-chief.
At every crucial moment in the decade-long slide into authoritarianism in Venezuela, the military has been there for the rulers, Maduro and his mentor Hugo Chavez before him.
"Maduro leads a military government and the high command are part of the government," Moya-Ocampos said. "It would be extremely naïve to think they are going to do something different."
Guaido has been aggressively pushing for soldiers and generals alike to recognize him as president, something the U.S. and a host of other foreign governments did this week. As hard a sell as that is for the new face of a reinvigorated opposition, it's one he has to make to succeed in his bid to bring Maduro down. The Bolivian National Armed Forces are arguably the most important constituency in the crisis-torn country.
So far, Guaido and his compatriots in the National Assembly have made this offer: amnesty protection for alleged corruption and human rights abuses to any member who defects.
That, Moya-Ocampos said, "may serve for middle or lower ranks. But for higher ranks, they don't see that as enough."
Maduro has simply handed them too many lucrative prizes, which the U.S. contends have allowed them to accumulate huge fortunes. The top ranks control the ports, have contracts for hundreds of social housing projects and valuable mining and oil services concessions and hold the reins to Venezuela's crown jewel, Petroleos de Venezuela.
Even at this ugly stage in the country's devastating decline, it would be surprising if most military leaders didn't continue to back the regime, said historian Tomas Straka, a professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "Their economic interests and vision are completely fused with Maduro's."
Those interests, in the view of the U.S., are illicit and damning. Nikki Haley, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the UN, has called Venezuela a "criminal narco-state that is robbing the Venezuelan people blind."
Since 2015, the U.S. has sanctioned over a dozen current and former high-ranking security officials on allegations of corruption, cocaine trafficking and human rights abuses for their alleged roles in cracking down on dissent during anti-government protests.
Maduro has condemned the U.S. sanctions as baseless, the result of fabricated charges.
He can still muster support. A day after Guaido proclaimed himself the rightful president before adoring crowds in Caracas, Padrino, the defense minister, and eight regional commanders took to the airwaves to swear allegiance to Maduro. One by one, they pledged loyalty and denounced a "coup" by Guaido. The armed forces "swore to die for the fatherland" and rejected an "imposed government," Padrino said from Caracas' main military base.
Maduro declared victory for his side. "Venezuela's military has spoken and they're with the constitution and the people," he said in a speech. "The military's voice is firm and clear."
But while the generals and admirals may be shielded from the misery of daily life in a country whose economy has been broken by Maduro's brand of socialist rule, those farther down the chain of command are struggling. They have to rely on their often meager salaries — for some as little as minimum wage, about $10 a month. They have to deal with shortages of food and medicine, with blackouts, with water taps that run dry.
To be sure, dissent has simmered in the military since before Maduro's tenure. In 2002, Chavez was briefly deposed in failed coup by some soldiers; he was reinstated by loyalists less than 48 hours later.
But recently, there have been reports of increases in desertions and early retirements. The government has moved against some dissenting troops, who it has accused of and conspiring against the regime. According to the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, a Caracas legal group, 163 members of the military are behind bars for political reasons.
On Monday, two dozen national guardsmen raided Caracas military outposts, stealing weapons and holding other soldiers captive before gathering in a fort near the city center. Videos posted on social media show guardsmen arguing with their hostages about why they wouldn't turn their backs on Maduro given the state of the country, while others called on civilians to rise up.
"Didn't you want the military to take the streets and light the fuse?'' a guardsmen who identified himself as Sergeant Luis Bandres said in one video. "We're lighting it here.''
At this point, Guaido has provided little detail about his amnesty plans. He has said he will "hand in" the measure adopted by the National Assembly, but didn't specify where or how.
Meantime, he has continued to lobby. The 35-year-old lawmaker, whose grandparents served in the Navy and the National Guard, told military members that "you have my respect, because I know how you live," in a recorded video this week. "We're not asking you to enforce a coup d'etat, instead, to defend the peoples' right to be heard and be free."
With assistance from Bloomberg's Fabiola Zerpa and Alex Vasquez.