The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela’s military, despite U.S. expectations, has not turned on Maduro

Former Venezuelans soldiers play pool at Villa Antigua Hotel in Cúcuta, Colombia, where they are applying for refu­gee status. (Charlie Cordero/For The Washington Post)

When the Trump administration first demanded in January that Venezuela’s government step aside and allow the political opposition to take over, hopes were high that the Venezuelan military would quickly change sides and make it happen.

Underpaid, underfed and humiliated by the autocratic turn their once-rich and democratic country had taken, the armed forces were the linchpin of the U.S. administration’s strategy. Some U.S. officials predicted that Venezuela’s military would flip en masse within days.

Nearly three months later, Venezuela’s top-heavy military remains largely intact under President Nicolás Maduro. The once-brisk pace of defections to neighboring Colombia has slowed to a trickle. Fewer than 1,500 Venezuelan soldiers, relieved by the Colombian government of their weapons and uniforms and housed in sparsely furnished hotel rooms near the border, now sit waiting for something to happen.

Most are consumed with worry about family and friends at home. A few are making plans to move on to new lives in Peru, Chile or beyond.

Many think that a U.S. military invasion is coming and that the Americans will want their help. Some express anger at what they see as ineffectual U.S. bluster and are calling colleagues still inside, telling them to stay put.

“I think the administration, as well as the opposition, put too much hope in the military rising up,” said a former senior U.S. official who worked on President Trump’s Venezuela policy. “Hope is not a plan.”

The opposition, whose leader, Juan Guaidó, is now recognized by the United States and several dozen other countries as interim president, while Maduro remains in place, “should have had a plan for [the military], and they didn’t,” said a senior official of one of several Latin American countries hosting the defectors. This official and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive foreign policy matter.

“We haven’t been able to flip them,” the Latin American official said of the military. “And we’ve been trying and trying.”

Trump administration officials acknowledge that defections are occurring more slowly than anticipated.

“Why hasn’t it broken open yet? Good question,” Elliott Abrams, the administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, said in a meeting in the past week with Washington Post editors and reporters. “It’s open for debate. I’ll give you part of the answer, and it’s the Cubans.”

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The administration says that at least 20,000 Cuban military and intelligence agents are embedded in the Venezuelan armed forces. “They are the enforcers. They are the people who are watching generals and colonels like hawks,” Abrams said. “They are the people who are substantially in charge of incarceration and punishment” of Venezuelans seen as disloyal.

The presence of tens of thousands of Cubans in Venezuela is widely acknowledged, although Cuba says most are doctors and teachers, and some U.S. analysts say the number of security officials is far smaller than the administration asserts.

Potential defectors “don’t have communications among themselves,” the Latin American official said, because they are being watched, listened to, and often even lack electricity to charge their phones. “They can’t meet, especially the guys that could have an impact and would be the ones to flip.”

“We’re talking to them, but what has to be done is they have to talk between themselves.”

A 50-year-old Venezuelan army colonel, speaking in Cúcuta, the Colombian border city where most of the defectors are housed, agreed that “there is no communication . . . there is no unity” within the military. The colonel spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the security of relatives in Venezuela.

The reason more do not defect, he said, is “fear that their families will be ruined.”

'Our message to soldiers'

While they are hesitant to criticize, some U.S. officials express exasperation with the Guaidó-led opposition, which they see as failing to win the support of the Venezuelan armed forces even as they demand U.S. intervention.

“The opposition hasn’t gained their confidence,” the former senior U.S. official said, and “has done a lousy job at assuaging their fears.”

Abrams, while treading lightly, concurred. “I would say that Guaidó and the National Assembly,” the opposition-led body that elected him interim president, “manifestly have to make clear to some people in the regime, to the military . . . that they intend a transition of national unity with all parties participating. They’ve said the right things, they have. A reconciliation. No vengeance. I guess it isn’t believed yet.”

For their part, opposition leaders are starting to worry. “We know our message to soldiers is being heard and that there is discontent within the armed forces. But there’s too much surveillance, blackmail and counterintelligence,” said Juan Andrés Mejía, a lawmaker from Guaidó’s Popular Will party, who is in charge of the opposition’s “day after” plan.

“The strategy,” he acknowledged, “hasn’t produced the effect we were looking for.”

But many say that the administration’s strong rhetoric and Trump’s repeated hints of possible U.S. military action, along with economic and financial pressure, led them to expect more from Washington.

“The United States has been an amazing ally, and that’s something we cannot negate,” said Freddy Superlano, another Popular Will lawmaker. “But it’s true that their and the international community’s discourse was very pompous. It’s a little upsetting to some when things are said, with no real immediate willingness to deliver.”

Inside Venezuela, the population is also growing impatient.

“The only thing I hear from the United States is them saying that it’s enough, that Maduro has to leave,” said Orlando Pérez, 53, who said he struggles with food, electricity and water shortages in his working-class suburb east of Caracas. “But if they’re going to take him out, take him out! Don’t keep offering to do things and threatening and then do nothing.”

U.S. officials say they have many more economic and diplomatic cards to play. The United States has imposed heavy sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports. Senior military and government officials, who are used to sending their children to U.S. schools and flying to Miami and New York for weekends, have had their visas revoked. Efforts are underway to persuade Latin American and European allies, who have recognized Guaidó but not matched the U.S. sanctions, to step up their actions.

Although the administration still describes the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian and political crisis, officials now speak of a Venezuela-based U.S. national security threat from Cuba and Russia.

Russia briefly landed two nuclear-capable bombers near Caracas in December and last month sent 100 military personnel for what U.S. officials believe was maintenance of Russian-made weaponry purchased by Venezuela. Last week, Moscow announced the opening of a training school in Venezuela for the Venezuelan military to operate its Russian helicopters.

The United Nations Security Council — where Maduro supporters Russia and China have veto power — is unlikely to agree to any action.

Some inside the administration have suggested invoking the Rio Treaty, a 1947 mutual-security pact between the United States and many countries in the Americas. Conveniently, most of the countries in the region that have not recognized Guaidó — including Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela — are not members of the accord and cannot veto its activation.

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The pact, a rarely used Cold War relic formally known as the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, could provide hesitant countries with international cover for broader nonmilitary action, or even intervention, if it came to that.

“I am convinced that the people of South America understand who shares their values, who their friends are,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently visiting the region and planning a Sunday stop in Cúcuta, said in a Chilean television interview Friday. “That common understanding about the right way to move forward will lead us to the outcome that the Venezuelan people deserve.”

But even the administration’s most prominent supporters in the region, such as Brazil’s new conservative government, have said they are uninterested in military intervention.

It “could happen under the umbrella of the United Nations . . . if Venezuela went into a civil war and we had to have a peacekeeping operation,” Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said during an interview last week in Washington. Brazil has welcomed about 500 Venezuelan military defectors.

“A classic invasion of Venezuela to overthrow Maduro, I don’t see this as a solution,” Mourão said. “Because we know how it’s going to begin, but we don’t know how it’s going to end.”

Afraid to rebel

What finally drove him to cross the border into Colombia on Feb. 28, said Jarle, 33, a sergeant major third class who served 11 years in the Venezuelan army, was a relatively small thing. He asked for a day off to accompany his heavily pregnant wife to a medical appointment, and his commanding officer said no.

“Let’s go,” he said he told his wife. “There’s nothing left for us here.” From the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, not far from the border, they walked with their 2-year-old daughter to Colombia along small paths that crisscross the area.

Today, home for Jarle and his family is a single, windowless room in a small Cúcuta hotel that is filled with Venezuelans with similar stories. Ceiling fans barely stir the sultry air, and the place is a cacophony of toddler shoes on bare floors and the clack-clack of dominoes being played by bored men.

While the decision to leave was made in an instant, Jarle said, there had been a long buildup. “The conditions for the military were terrible. The food was insufficient. Rice and beans are not the proper food for a soldier,” he said as he sipped a 7Up in a small cafe in downtown Cúcuta.

Yet most of his fellow soldiers were afraid to rebel, said Jarle, an intense man with military-short dark hair and wire-rim glasses. “We’d complain, but you have to know who you could talk to. If they think you’re a conspirator, they’ll throw you in jail.” Some prisoners are tortured, he said, and the authorities often harass family members of those deemed disloyal.

Shortly after he left, Jarle said, the military went to his parents’ house and threatened them. He has told only his brother where he is.

Asked about the future, he acted the tough guy. “Either the thing is sorted out or we military may have to act to end this government,” he said. He hopes, like many of the others, that Trump will order the U.S. military to go in. “An invasion would involve us,” he said. “We know the terrain.”

Although there is little to do in Cúcuta, Jarle said he has no complaints about his treatment by the Colombians or international aid organizations.

Inside their stifling room, his wife rested on one of two beds, exhausted from childbirth. Nestled next to her was their week-old daughter, dressed in a hot-pink onesie. In one corner, helium-filled balloons, trailing curlicued ribbons, bobbed against the ceiling.

“Bienvenidos,” said one. Welcome.

Urged to be patient

As of Friday, the official number of Venezuelan security personnel seeking refu­ge in Colombia was 1,410, along with 670 family members, according to Colombian officials. About a quarter of them have been there since before Jan. 23, when the Legislative Assembly swore Guaidó in, and the United States recognized him as interim president.

Many of the rest came shortly after Feb. 23, the Saturday when Guaidó showed up in Cúcuta to cheer the convoys of U.S. and other humanitarian aid that tried to cross the nearby bridge across the Tachira River, one of seven official entry points on the long, porous border. Maduro blocked the route, and masked paramilitary figures, known in Venezuela as “colectivos,” attacked the crowds that approached from the Colombian side.

But what was once a flow of 80 to 100 military defectors a day has slowed to two or three. Many remain in Cúcuta, the first stop for up to 70 percent of the 1.5 million nonmilitary refugees who have fled into Colombia since Venezuela began to collapse last year. Few of the military defectors come from the highest ranks, which the opposition and the Trump administration charge have grown rich from corruption. Only one general is among those in Colombia, officials there said.

The government in Bogota decided early on to separate the civilians from the self-identified military, which they have designated a “special group.”

All go through a process that begins with turning over their weapons and uniforms to the Colombian Defense Ministry. Each is then interviewed by Colombian security and intelligence personnel who ask basic biographical questions and seek to glean information about conditions in armed forces units inside Venezuela. Interviewers also want to ensure, to the extent possible, that they are not admitting spies or troublemakers.

As a third step, all must sign a document pledging that they will not engage in any military activities while in Colombia and that they are requesting refu­gee status, making them eligible for social services and international aid.

In Cúcuta, a sprawling border city of red-roofed buildings and bustling, tree-shaded streets, military families and, separately, single soldiers, are scattered among small hotels.

Higher-ranking officers are housed in Villa Antigua, a hotel outside the city with graceful, whitewashed buildings, a large garden and merciful air conditioning. No tourists or other guests are allowed to stay there. The main gate is closed at night with a padlock, and Colombian national police stand guard.

“We are doing the best we can to support them,” Felipe Muñoz, who is in charge of operations on the Colombia-Venezuela border for Colombian President Iván Duque, said of the defectors.

The Colombians acknowledge that some of the soldiers came with high expectations — of work and prosperity, or special treatment and maybe the opportunity to organize into fighting units — and have been disappointed.

Several weeks ago, Guaidó was enlisted to talk to them via Skype. Stay calm, he told them, be patient.

A new life

Angel, 24, a sergeant second class, was based with an army artillery battalion in Merida, in the mountains of northwest Venezuela. Like many, he was unhappy about the scarcities, but what drove him to leave the country on Feb. 28 was a more profound disenchantment.

During his six years in the military, he and his colleagues began each day with a mandatory chant, a paean to Hugo Chávez, the military officer who began Venezuela’s socialist revolution in 1998 and ran the country as president until his death from cancer in 2013. Maduro took over as Chávez’s handpicked successor and was reelected last year in an election widely denounced as fraudulent.

“Chávez vive!” the chant went. “La Patria sigue! Independencia y patria socialista!” Chávez lives! . . . Independence and a socialist fatherland!”

“You hear it, you hear it, and you begin to believe it,” Angel said.

But after the oil-rich economy imploded under Maduro’s mismanagement, his eyes began to open, he said. “I have a nephew who died in the hospital because there was no medicine,” he said.

Angel spoke of longing to hug his mother and grandmother, but he has no idea when he might return to Venezuela. Last year, he sent his wife and 5-year-old daughter to Peru, and he said he hopes to leave Cúcuta and join them there in the next few months. They plan to travel from there to Chile to start a new life.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão. The story has been corrected.

Sheridan reported from Cúcuta, Colombia. Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, Venezuela, and Ishaan Tharoor in Washington contributed to this report.