CARACAS, Venezuela — As opponents of President Nicolás Maduro confront his government with intensifying protests, they are also challenging him in a high-stakes battle for the sympathies of Venezuela's armed forces.
Their calls have highlighted the central role of Venezuela’s powerful military commanders in the struggle for the country’s future. Protesters have urged them to restore constitutional order and prevent a confrontation that would force soldiers to choose between defending Maduro and gunning down civilians.
Aware of Venezuela’s history of military rebellions, Maduro has worked to secure the loyalty of commanders, granting them influential roles and benefits. But with fissures emerging in his government, and the economy cratering, the opposition sees an opportunity to apply pressure on the embattled president through an institution crucial to his survival.
The leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, Julio Borges, has made repeated statements in recent weeks asking the armed forces to “break their silence.” He insists that Maduro has “kidnapped” once-prestigious military institutions, making them complicit in government corruption and human rights abuses.
Photos: Venezuela’s opposition clashes with police
“Part of our daily struggle is for the armed forces to no longer be held hostage by a powerful few and become democratic forces fighting for Venezuela’s constitution,” Borges said last week.
He and other Maduro opponents say they are not calling for a military coup. With Venezuela’s economy spiraling downward and the president’s approval rating hovering around 20 percent, they want the government to schedule elections as soon as possible, confident in a path to power through the ballot box, not the barracks.
But they also appear desperate for a referee in their standoff with the government, given that international mediation attempts by the Vatican and others have stalled.
They also appear energized by recent, rare displays of public dissent from top members of Maduro's government, most notably after supreme court judges tried to strip the opposition-controlled legislature of its authority last month. Venezuela's top prosecutor denounced the court ruling as unconstitutional, and the judges mostly reversed the decision.
Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he thinks there are limits to military officers’ loyalty to the government, especially if Maduro fails to show an ability to avert a financial collapse.
“As the saying goes, they are willing to accompany Maduro to the cemetery but not be buried with him,” Gunson said.
The chances that high-level officers would openly break with Maduro appear slim. He has named his hard-line vice president, Tareck El Aissami, to lead a special “anti-coup” commission to sniff out dissent. And Maduro has filled the highest ranks of his government with loyal generals, several of whom are facing U.S. indictments on corruption and drug trafficking charges.
Rather than rebel, military leaders could force the government to negotiate with the opposition by signaling an unwillingness to use escalating force on protesters, Gunson said. The unrest has left 20 dead this month, and Venezuelans dressed in white held a silent march through the capital Saturday to honor those killed in the violence.
“As to whether they will do that, the signals are mixed,” Gunson said. “Many at the top are likely to go down with the ship, since their prospects of staying out of jail are poor. To some extent, a deal involving some immunity from prosecution would help in that regard.”
The Venezuelan president has pointed to Borges's statements as evidence that his opponents want to unseat him by force. He told cheering supporters at a government rally last week that Borges is a "coupmonger," warning him, "The law is coming for you."
Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor, was temporarily ousted in a 2002 military coup that split Venezuela’s armed forces. Several commanders played a decisive role in helping masses of Chávez supporters restore him to power.
But unlike Chávez, Maduro does not have a military pedigree and has tried to win the loyalty of the armed forces by promoting thousands of officers supportive of his government, vastly expanding the number of generals and admirals.
He has bestowed Gen. Vladimir Padrino, the defense minister, with extraordinary powers, including oversight of the importation and distribution of food in a country where as much as 80 percent of residents are not getting enough to eat.
An investigation by the Associated Press last year found that military leaders have used their powers over food imports for personal enrichment, skimming millions in public funds.
Several high-ranking officials in Venezuela’s military and security services also face U.S. indictments on corruption and drug trafficking charges, accusations that would leave them vulnerable to prosecution if Maduro and his United Socialist Party lose control of the government. Maduro and his supporters dismiss those allegations as politically motivated smears.
Opposition leaders say part of their strategy is to force Venezuelan security forces to think twice about engaging in repressive tactics, knowing they may be held accountable if the government changes hands.
“We are trying to say to them that if they commit a crime, they won’t be able to escape from responsibility,” opposition lawmaker Rafael Guzmán said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter if they were following orders.”
The opposition also wants to appeal to rank-and-file soldiers’ unhappiness over the deprivation their families are suffering, along with the rest of society. “Many members of the armed forces are not eating enough, either,” he said.
Rocío San Miguel, a Venezuelan lawyer who leads a nonprofit that advocates for greater civilian oversight of the military, said Maduro, like Chávez before him, has encouraged a “caste system” that rewards generals and admirals with wealth and power, making them “partisans of the ruling party.”
“But that doesn’t mean everybody inside the armed forces benefits from this structure of power,” she said.
Maduro is embattled but not isolated. His party lost control of the legislature in 2015, but he has stacked the judicial branch with supporters and uses the courts to stifle the opposition agenda or send rivals to jail. He also controls the state-run oil industry, the country’s economic lifeblood.
But Venezuela's armed forces hold the balance of power. As a hedge against possible disloyalty, Maduro is intent on putting a gun in the hands of almost anyone who backs his government. This week, he announced plans to increase the number of civilian militia members — essentially pro-government activists with little training — from 100,000 to 500,000.
Padrino, the defense minister, recently affirmed the military’s “unconditional loyalty” to Maduro on national television.
Retired Gen. Manuel Andara said the Maduro government is using the country’s chronic shortages as a kind of cynical leverage over military officers, securing their loyalty by making them fear the loss of their privileges.
Andara said he was saddened to see public perceptions of the military sinking with those of the government, adding that he has felt contempt from other Venezuelans when they find out he is a former general, even though he retired in 1996. He said he knows current officers who experience the same thing.
"Today, many soldiers prefer to dress as civilians, rather than wearing their uniforms, because they are so ashamed," he said.