Why the army's loyalty is key in Venezuela's crisis

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Why the army's loyalty is key in Venezuela's crisis
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“I am one more soldier of our honourable Venezuelan military. I am willing to give my life, if necessary, to defend our sacred homeland,” reads a tweet on the verified account of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

In a video accompanying the tweet, Maduro appears surrounded by soldiers.

The post came as many European and North American countries recognised National Assembly chief Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela in late January.

The Chavista leader knows that the army — a pillar of the Bolivarian revolution — could be the key to tilting the balance.

Guaido, also aware of the military's importance, addresses officers in all his speeches.

On February 7th, Venezuelan security forces received orders from Maduro to block shipments of humanitarian aid from the US and Canada sent via the Colombian border. Guaido, on the other hand, has asked them to allow the shipments to pass. It remains to be seen who the military will answer to.

REUTERS/Marco Bello
People hold placards as they wait for the arrival of trucks with international humanitarian aid for Venezuela, outside a warehouse where it will be stored according to authorities, near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia, February 7, 2019. The placard reads, "Maduro out"REUTERS/Marco Bello

Why has the army been loyal to Maduro so far?

Maduro is the direct heir of Chavez’s legacy, who had a long military career and who’s last post was that of commander of a paratrooper battalion.

During his time as president, Chavez placed Venezuelan military officers in high-government positions and gave them control of key institutions which received large sums of money.

According to figures by Social Watch, a Venezuelan NGO, ministers who are active members of the military, like the president of the Constituent Assembly and second-in-command Diosdado Cabello, represent 25% of Maduro’s cabinet.

During his years in command, Chavez purged the military of anyone who did not align with his political ideology.

Nowadays, generals have an important role in the control of borders, routes and ports, which places them in a privileged position with easy access to US dollars.

What does Guaido have to offer?

Guaido, now recognised as the legitimate president of Venezuela by the US and a big proportion of EU member states, has referred to the “military family” in a number of his speeches and has promised officers amnesty if they turn on Maduro.

His supporters have started distributing information about the amnesty promise in various military barracks across the country.

The US has also helped his cause. John Bolton, US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has offered to lift sanctions on Venezuelan officers who defect from Maduro.

The US administration has kept sanctions on several Venezuelan officers including army Lieutenant General Gerardo José Izquierdo Torres and the leader of the Bolivarian National Guard, Fabio Enrique Zavarse Pabón, as well as Minister of Defence Vladimir Padrino Lopez.

'90% of the army backs Guaido'

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido attends a meeting with representatives of FEDEAGRO, the Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers of Venezuela, in Caracas, Venezuela February 6, 2019REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

"Maduro needs to keep military leaders satisfied so they don't opt for an overthrow," Venezuela expert Tim Gill told Euronews.

But even if they did overthrow Maduro, it's not certain they would back Guaido because all their "privileges could evaporate under an opposition government," Gill added.

"It appears far too risky for them and could end whatever financial and/or criminal schemes they currently benefit from," he said.

But for Gill, it is not inconceivable that Guaido could be able to convince them with his amnesty promise.

And there have already been some high-level defections from Maduro's government.