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Within Venezuelan military ranks, a struggle over what leader to back

Within Venezuelan military ranks, a struggle over what leader to back
A defaced mural of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 24, 2019. Though Venezuela’s military brass has publicly sworn allegiance to Maduro, interviews with current and former officers offer a more complicated picture. (Meridith Kohut/The New York Times)

Written by: Nicholas Casey

When Venezuelans took to the streets this week to demand a return to democracy, they chose a date with deep historic significance: Jan. 23, the day a dictatorship collapsed in the face of surging protests more than 60 years ago.

But demonstrations alone didn’t bring down Venezuela’s strongman back then. Only when the military stepped in, with tanks alongside protesters, did the dictatorship fall.

It’s a playbook that Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old opposition leader who declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president to cheering crowds Wednesday, hoped would be just as relevant today as it was in 1958.

While Guaidó earned the official recognition of the United States and more than 20 other countries, he remains a leader without a state. Venezuela’s military brass publicly swore allegiance to the nation’s president, Nicolás Maduro, frustrating the opposition’s plan to entice the armed forces into breaking ranks and turning the tide in the country’s long slide into authoritarianism.

But interviews with current and former military officers offer a more complicated struggle, with many officers wanting Maduro out and still looking for how it might be done.

Factions of officers who have defected say they are plotting returns from their makeshift headquarters in Peru, Colombia and other countries. Rebellious military commanders even held secret meetings with the Trump administration over the last year to discuss their plans to overthrow Maduro.

Inside Venezuela, the military’s ranks have been decimated as thousands of soldiers have deserted because hyperinflation has rendered their paychecks nearly worthless. Some other members of the armed forces say they want to join Guaidó’s side, but fear the military counterintelligence service, which has punished dissidents ruthlessly.

“It’s not possible to explain the atrocities that our country has endured the last 20 years,” said Carlos Guillén Martinez, an army lieutenant who fled the country last year after he claims he was tortured by Maduro’s agents. Guillén says he and others are planning to return with arms if Maduro’s government holds this year.

“We are as firm on this as ever,” he said. “We keep moving forward and we won’t lose our North Star.”

The crisis in Venezuela has created an untenable standoff — one country with two presidents. On Friday, Maduro expressed a willingness to meet with the opposition, while Guaidó made his first public appearance since declaring himself the nation’s legitimate interim president, telling supporters to rally against authorities “if they dare to kidnap me.”

Both sides in the standoff are courting the military as the gatekeeper of control over the country. The crossroads are familiar for Venezuela’s armed forces, which have spent generations enmeshed in the nation’s politics and repeatedly brokered power during the time of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, himself a former army commander.

But the crisis marks a large step backward for the region as a whole, which many hoped had left behind its cycle of dictatorships, coups and foreign interventions. As other Latin American countries have strengthened their democracies, Venezuela has followed a different path of increasing instability under Maduro and uncertainty about the way forward.

“It’s meant the only player in making a final step here is the military,” said Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian who teaches at New York University.

The crowds protesting against Maduro are the product of an economic collapse his government has overseen in recent years. Though Venezuela has the world’s largest proven reserves of oil, the government’s economic mismanagement has left the currency worthless, many basic foods are missing from stores, and its hospital system is in collapse. More than 3 million people have fled for other countries.

The political instability that led to the economic collapse traces its origin to Maduro’s predecessor, Chávez. A former lieutenant colonel, he came to prominence during the attempted coup he organized in 1992. He won the presidency six years later, beginning what he called a Socialist revolution to redistribute wealth to the country’s poor.

While other Latin American countries gradually cemented democratic norms, Venezuelans elected — and repeatedly re-elected — a leader who had tried to overthrow the government by force.

By 2002, another military coup was underway, this time supported by Venezuela’s opposition, which briefly deposed Chávez with the approval of the United States. Chávez responded with purges, and years of attacks against Venezuela’s institutions, pushing the country further from democracy.

The purges against the military had lasting consequences for Venezuela’s armed forces, which were pushed to support Chavez’s party. They influenced young soldiers like Josué Hidalgo, an army lieutenant who said he entered the service under Chávez and quickly became disenchanted with what he saw on the ground.

“They told us ‘Socialism is good,’ ” he said. “But then you could see what was going on, the extreme levels of corruption in the military.”

Hidalgo said he was sent to a mining region on the Brazilian border, where he said he witnessed Venezuelan military commanders extorting gold miners and managing shipments of contraband fuel.

In 2017, he said he was approached by a dissident military group called the Sword of God. Shortly afterward, he was captured by military intelligence agents but escaped to Brazil, he said.

Today, he works with Guillén, recruiting defectors who have left the country and have expressed interest in returning to start an uprising. During an interview, two of his comrades showed a spreadsheet with hundreds of names, ages, ranks and identification numbers — people they said were interested in joining them.

Among the documents were screenshots of what they said was a WhatsApp conversation with a young cadet in Venezuela expressing concern about whether he might be asked to put down the latest wave of protests.

“I’m not going to permit that someone fires on the people,” the message said. “The cadets are angry. We don’t want this government.”

A former U.S. official said these disgruntled military officers, along with thousands of other military-aged men who have fled the country, could present a serious challenge to Maduro if neighboring countries led by right-wing governments — like Colombia and Brazil — mobilized them, or allowed them to mobilize on their own.

Guaidó’s call for the military to join his cause seemed to be gaining momentum with some in the armed forces.

On Monday, a group of soldiers posted online videos pledging allegiance to the opposition leader, seemingly responding to his offer of amnesty for defectors. Their calls were followed by clashes at a military base in Caracas, shortly before the government said it had put down a mutiny.

On Wednesday, when Guaidó declared himself president, top military brass were silent, leading to speculation that they may have been debating Maduro’s fate.

But Thursday, Vladimir Padrino López, an army general serving as defense minister, stood in front of the top commanders of the country’s armed forces to say they would back Maduro, calling Guaidó “laughable.”

“I must alert the people of the danger this represents,” he said. “We’re here to avoid a clash between Venezuelans.”

Velasco, the historian, said it was not surprising that Venezuela’s top military officials haven’t backed the opposition.

In recent years, Maduro has faced small uprisings by the nation’s security forces. Knowing how critical they are to his grip on power, he has offered the military incentives, including control of large parts of the legal economy, along with lucrative drug smuggling routes and other illicit trades, Velasco said.

“They are ultimately the ones who not only have the firearms, they are so deeply implicated in the corruption of the state that having them onboard is an absolute necessary condition to pushing out Maduro,” Velasco said.

The opposition has been targeting the middle ranks, holding meetings with midlevel officers to explain a recent amnesty law passed by the opposition-led National Assembly for people who defect, according to a prominent opposition member.

Carlos Peñaloza, a former chief of staff of the Venezuelan army now in Miami, said he has been in touch with disgruntled midlevel officers in recent weeks and believes that their numbers are enough to overthrow Maduro, with or without support of Venezuela’s top commanders.

“Many majors, lieutenants and colonels — they began their careers before Chávez,” he said, adding that they did not owe allegiance to Maduro. “They were raised in democracy and want to see it restored.”

Peñaloza said an embargo on Venezuelan oil by the United States might lead to mass defections in the military. The 500,000 barrels a day of petroleum that Venezuela sends to the United States are believed to be the principal source of hard currency for the government, and one of the main incentives top military brass have had to remain loyal.

“Maduro wouldn’t have the money to pay them,” he said.

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Written by sortiwa