What’s Going on in the Barracks?

Venezuela's armed forces could determine the fate of the Maduro government. 


The military is Maduro’s pillar of support in the face of the current, profound political and economic crisis. Pro-government and opposition figures define the armed forces as potentially determining the government’s fate.

The military has been at the centre of the political tapestry of the country, and above all because of the depth of the economic, social and political crisis that it is living. The military is considered to be one of the fundamental pillars holding up the government of [Nicolas] Maduro,* even more so since Chavismo lost the parliamentary elections and the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly, as well as within the open rivalry between the [political] powers that exist in the country. Last Saturday, attempting to show complete control over the armed forces, Maduro was actively present in the nation-wide military exercises that were organised on the basis of possible foreign threats to the country.

The military always occupied a central role in Chavismo, acquiring high levels of politicisation and involvement in the public, political and economic life of the country. This was a trademark of Chavismo, of the characteristics of Chavez’s government which had strong traces of a sui generis, leftist Bonapartist government, and he himself being from the military world. But the role of the military was always held in balance by Chavez himself, the strong man of the country, in his mediator role between the nation and classes.

But after the death of Chavez and the emergence of the weakened government of Maduro– which rapidly entered into a spiral of economic and political crisis and an exhausting situation for the people, alongside a right-wing opposition that decided to accelerate its steps to oust the revolution– there appeared to be movements or pressures from different sectors and even from within the very same military to the end that, the armed forces have come to play this arbitrating role.

From then on, in the present situation of the country marked by the activation of the recall referendum, they [the military] appear to have become the major weight holding the balance in any type of political solution that might happen in the country.

If Maduro has doubled his calls for unity and loyalty among the FANB [Bolivarian National Armed Forces] then the MUD [Roundtable of Democratic Unity] has also multiplied its exhortations to the military, as [Henrique] Capriles has done in recent statements.

For a governing regime such as Chavismo– where for a decade and a half the armed forces have held a key position in the political life of the country, as well as important incursions into economic and commercial activities, developing material interests and benefits from “the model,”– then the armed forces will be a fundamental variable at the moment of any transition, and even more so in such a chaotic situation.

The weight of the armed forces

Delving deeper into the military world is highly complex due to its closed nature, but above all because of its occasional divisions, but there is a lot of relevant data accessible to the public that offers us a perspective on the strong military presence in the government, as well as its strong sphere of influence. It’s no secret that the presence of the military in the executive cabinet has reached its highest point in the history of Chavismo under Maduro.

For example, out of thirty or more ministers, ten are currently in the Bolivarian Armed Forces; six active and four retired. They occupy positions of high importance and consequently have more preponderance in qualitative terms. They are in charge of some of the most important ministries, such as Interior Relations, Justice and Peace, under General Gustavo González López, Defence, under General Vladimir Padrino López, and Electrical Energy, under General Luis Motta Domínguez. Moreover, they manage high priority ministries such as the Food Ministry, Agriculture and Land, Fishing and Aquaculture, to mention just a few. In addition to ministerial positions, FANB officials also direct state-owned businesses, vice-ministries, other typically civilian institutions and are at the head of several local governments.

But the armed forces has great influence in the business sector of the state, which has increased since Maduro took office. For instance, on April 19th 2013, six days after taking the presidency, Maduro appeared at the Rafael Urdaneta airbase in Maracaibo for the inauguration of a “powerful” military economic zone, with the objective of “satisfying the demands of the FANB”. Three months later, on the July 9th of the same year, Maduro formalised the Socialist Military Economic Zone with the opening of the first six businesses, encompassing different sectors from transport, agriculture and communications to finance, refreshments and construction.

Consequently, from July 2013 until February 2016, the Ministry of Defence created 11 businesses for the “economic development of the FANB” which encompass the economic sectors we previously detailed. The most recent business to be incorporated into the military economic zone is CAMIMPEG [Military Company for the Oil, Mining, and Gas Industries], which has a wide range of functions, from gas services to mining, the maintenance of oil wells, the repair of oil drills, to the importation of products and equipment, transport, civil works, and environmental decontamination, among others. In January 2016, three weeks before the creation of CAMIMPEG, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López called for the development of the military industrial motor to “contribute to national development”, one of the 14 motors of the new Bolivarian Economic Agenda.

As we wrote when CAMIMPEG was created, the great political concessions given by Chavez to the FANB– a dizzying increase in arms spending, the creation of military schools and universities, greater presence in political decisions, higher salaries for officials, privileges of all kinds, etc., and perhaps the greatest of all, the consolidation of the armed forces after the defeat of the 2002 coup, which were purged and their prestige restored– are all put to shame by the creation of this business.

Today Maduro is looking to maintain that influence which Chavez held due to his ascendancy and military origin. As he does not have the faculties of Chavez, Maduro must concede a great deal of business to [the military’s] growing wealth and influence. The future of Chavismo in the current government, with an opposition that is increasingly threatening to destroy it, depends fundamentally on the behaviour of the armed forces and it is searching in a million ways to guarantee the loyalty of the military strata.

We can add to all this the latest moves that Maduro has made from the Defence Ministry towards the inside of the military world, with the aim above all of attempting to gain even more control, with more trusted military officials now in areas with the highest concentration of arms. From a strictly military perspective, Venezuela is divided into 24 Integral Defence Zones (ZOD, one for each state) and seven Integral Strategic Defence Regions (REDI).

The government has just moved certain key pieces, with the Brigadier General, Carlos Alberto Martínez Stapulionis, recently designated as the chief of the Integral Defence Zone in the Capital, from where the arms of the Republic are controlled. Martínez Stapulionis was at the helm of the state of exception and the closure of the border as the highest authority in Tachira between August 2015 and May 2016. Another key piece for Maduro is the Major General Carlos Osorio Zambrano, who until recently was the Minister of Food, and who has been the new commander of the Integral Strategic Defence Region of the centre of the country for the past few months, the zone with the most arms in Venezuela and which includes the military zone of Aragua (with the Libertador airbase), Carabobo (with the armoured brigade), Miranda and the Capital District (including Fuerte Tiuna military base, the White Palace and ZODI-Caracas).

Responding to these moves to ensure control of the military forces, the right-wing exhorted and even directed videos at military officials, calling on them to support the recall referendum.

Military dissent? Unpredictable scenarios

The Armed Forces is plagued with rumours of possible divisions, in the same way that there are surely divisions in the very government of Maduro, even the most famous: is the military under the greater influence of Diosdado Cabello or Maduro? You can fill a piece of writing with a lot of speculation without having precise information that political movements can explain. But there are movements in the interior of the Armed Forces, there is no denying that.

On being obliged to resolve the actual political crisis and take a respective position, the contradictions that cut across national politics could also seap into the armed forces, opening greater internal deliberation. Potentially, [the military is divided among] a wing that is closer to Maduro, other sectors that would be behind Diosdado Cabello, another wing that is “Bolivarian but not Madurista,” and possibly among the medium level and lower ranking officials that don’t form part of the cohorts who were trained alongside Chavez and who now occupy high command posts, there may be sectors that sympathise with the opposition.

If there are no public expressions at the moment, it is understood that it is because of the strict closed order, command and discipline that exists in any military unit, but what there are are military officials that up until recently occupied relevant posts in the FANB and ministries, and who have publicly come out as dissonant voices. It’s difficult to believe that those military officials developed these opinions once they left their positions, but rather than they held them while carrying out their functions, and consequently, they are expressing underground voices and movements within the FANB.

As we wrote in a recent article, the most notorious case among these dissonant voices is Major General Clíver Alcalá Cordones, former chief of a Strategic Defence Region (REDI) in the southeast of the country, and who retired shortly after the death of Chávez. A few days ago, on May 17th, he expressed discontent with the government of Maduro, affirming that “What we saw on the 4th of February 1992, we are seeing now,” referring to the date on which Chávez led an attempted coup.

These declarations can be added to those made by retired Major General and Minister of Justice and the Interior until October 2014, Miguel Eduardo Rodríguez Torres, not so long ago, arguing that “It’s necessary to understand that commander Chávez is no longer here and there must be changes”. These military officials share one element in common, using the language of the “legacy of Chávez,” they are manifesting the disagreements that could be at play among military officials.

But the role that the armed forces could play is still to be seen, both in terms of exercising its power to effect a more accelerated transition in the country, or exercising a role which could open the way for further political convulsions. There is no one who doesn’t speak of internal-coups, or of the forced removal of Maduro, we cannot even rule out a “proclamation” in the traditions of Latin American armies, in which without directly taking power, they take an institutional position that conditions the resolution of the crisis, for instance, in favour or against the realisation of the [recall] referendum in a determined time period. But what is certain in the current situation is that the political time is arriving when the role of the armed forces is not simply that of a catalyst.

What is also certain is that, contrary to what some observers are expecting, a greater involvement of the FANB in the political terrain, and even a “military proclamation” or an internal coup, will not be favourable to “deepening the process,” fulfilling the “legacy of Chavez to advance towards socialism of the Twenty First Century,” or to any other illusion about the workers’ and people’s cause. On the contrary, as the military shows its more repressive face in working class areas or in the prevention of social unrest (such as localised looting), the deployment of the military to “maintain order” will principally go against, sooner or later, the workers and the people and their freedom to mobilise or intervene in the crisis.

This is one of the reasons to reject the “state of exception” and to alert the working people about the danger that the growing role of the military represents, whether it is supporting Maduro, or spilling over to support a “transition” by pacting with the right-wing, imperialism and the Pope in the background.


Translated and edited by Venezuelanalysis.com.