The power struggle between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido intensified this week as the opposition leader vowed to defy Maduro and bring aid across the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
The move is seen by many as a test for Venezuela’s military forces, who have so far continued to pledge their support for the embattled president despite calls from the opposition and the United States to back Guaido.
As the country plunges deeper into crisis, we examine the armed forces, why their support is so important, and why the highest ranks continue to stand by Maduro.
Who are the military forces?
According to Ronal Rodriguez, a professor and researcher at the University of Rosario’s Venezuelan Observatory in Colombia, the Venezuelan army has “always been fundamental in understanding the country’s political system”.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the military was tasked with safeguarding public security and national territory. Members of the armed forces did not have the right to vote and they were isolated from participating in the civic sphere.
“Venezuela as a modern state started with a military dictatorship, as a result, they were kept away from the civil forces,” Rodriguez said.
But under the presidency of Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), who had a military background, that role transformed and the military was tasked with the country’s development.
The military became an essential part of Chavez’s plan to change the country’s social, economic and political structures to be in line with the government’s political direction.
Chavez aimed to create a closer bond of trust and cooperation between the civilian population and the military through what the higher ranks labelled a “civil-military alliance”.
For many, the military became a source of pride and patriotism.
Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor who had no previous military links, continued his predecessor’s vision. Many officers currently hold important positions within the government itself.
The military is commanded by General Vladimir Padrino, the defence minister, and by General Remigio Ceballos, commander of operational strategy.
The military doctrine is based on policies laid out by the late Chavez, and it is based on members being “patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist”.
“Our army by tradition is anti-imperialist, Latin Americanist and Bolivarian,” Ricardo Leon, editor of El Silbon Information Agency, told Al Jazeera.
“Nowhere in its history have you seen them having the intention of invading any other country,” he added.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there are about 365,000 troops in the Venezuelan military.
In 2006, after the US prohibited the sale or transfer of military arms or technology, Russia became one of Venezuela’s largest weapons supplier, having sold the country more than $10bn in hardware since the mid-2000s, including assault rifles, advanced jet fighters, tanks, and missile systems, according to the NGO Control Ciudadano, which monitors military activity.
In recent years, China has become Venezuela’s biggest military supplier, providing communications gear, uniforms, radars, armoured vehicles, planes and helicopters.
Why is the military important?
Opposition leaders have criticised what they call the “politicisation” of the military.
“The worst error committed by Chavez was to bring the military out of the barracks” and onto the streets, said Henry Ramos Allup, a former National Assembly president, and member of the opposition.
“Who is going to put them back?” he told local media in 2017.
But for many this has been a winning strategy for Venezuela.
“The military since Chavez has always been civilian and military, this has created a bond between both sectors,” said Marco Teruggi, a Venezuelan political analyst.
Senior military officers head key sectors, including the food distribution services, which is run by Defence Minister Padrino, and the state-owned oil company PDVSA, which is run by Major General Manuel Quevedo, head of the national guard.
According to AFP news agency, of the 32 cabinet posts in the government in 2017, 10 were held by active-duty military men and two were held by retired military personnel.
“They have become the centre of the Venezuelan political balance, any modification will have to go through their hands,” Rodriguez said.
“They control the main channels that will make the distribution of humanitarian aid effective. Their role is fundamental,” he added.
According to analysts, the opposition won’t succeed without the military’s support.
“The opposition won’t be able to overthrow the president and keep the power, without the military support, so they will do all they can to win them over,” Teruggi said.
“The opposition has used all kind of resources, from social media campaigns to internal and international threats, to the elaboration of an amnesty,” he added.
Members of the military also control a television channel, a bank, and a construction group, as well as the military mining, gas and petroleum company known as Camimpeg.
The company performs functions similar to PDVSA. It also repairs and maintains oil wells, and distributes the products of the oil, gas, mining and petrochemical industries.
Critics point to PDVSA’s challenges under the military’s leadership. The company suffers from lower production, dwindling export revenue and a shortage of skilled staff.
“There is no reason for the national guard to control and manage PDVSA, they have no expertise. In the past, they were in charge of guarding the perimeter outside the company, but from that to now manage it, that’s a big leap,” Rodriguez said.
However, Maduro has defended the military managers, arguing they understand more his world view.
“I want a Socialist PDVSA,” Maduro has previously said. “An ethical, sovereign and productive PDVSA. We must break this model of the rentier oil company.”
What challenges does the military face?
According to local reports, the military’s lower and middle ranks are ill-equipped, suffer difficulties in communication and are monitored by the intelligence services.
Salaries have also quickly decreased. More than 4,000 low-ranking officers deserted last year, Reuters news agency reported.
“The middle ranks are earning around $3 to $4 a month, and that is impacting their own structure,” said Rocio San Miguel, a Caracas-based expert on Venezuela’s armed forces and director of NGO Control Ciudadano.
The military has struggled to maintain its equipment as it suffers from a shortage of spare parts.
According to some analysts, intelligence agents are also embedded among the military forces to guard against anti-regime activity, leading to abuses within the military ranks.
Dozens of Venezuelan soldiers, accused of betrayal, have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities have also arrested the family members of some suspects in an effort to determine their whereabouts, the rights group said.
In most cases, members of the country’s General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) or the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN) have carried out the arrests.
More than 170 soldiers were arrested for treason, rebellion and desertion in early 2018, compared with a total of 196 for all of 2017, according to Reuters news agency, citing rights groups.
“The situation within our armed forces is very vulnerable at this moment,” said Sebastiana Barraez, a journalist and an expert on Venezuela’s military forces.
“In the Venezuelan barracks, there is no food, there are no medicines, they are facing the same crisis people are experiencing,” Barraez said. “This situation has kept them distracted, and the sum of all these variables, means the military forces lack the proper training, and the force to be able to respond to any attack.”
Why does the military back Maduro?
So far, the military, and in particular the higher ranks, have repeatedly pledged their loyalty to the Maduro, who has vowed to protect Chavez’s legacy.
Eager to gain support from members of the military, the opposition has developed an amnesty proposal that would grant amnesty to soldiers who willingly break ranks with the current government.
The law offers amnesty, but not impunity, and makes it clear that “crimes against humanity, serious violations of human rights and war crimes” are not covered.
But the opposition has no way of enforcing the law. Venezuela’s courts and most of the institutions are loyal to Maduro’s government.
“The opposition lacks legitimacy inside the country, basically the US created a parallel government to be able to execute its agenda legitimately. But they lack support, and they don’t have the control nor the right mechanisms to make this happen,” Teruggi said.
And due to their privileges and current conditions, analysts believe the higher ranks won’t see themselves as part of any transitional government.
“They have reached a point of no return, in the economic benefits and privileges they’ve already accumulated, in the loyalty they have already pledged,” San Miguel told Al Jazeera.
Some believe this can be attributed to the work of the intelligence services among the ranks.
“The intelligence control has taken its toll, most of the military personnel don’t talk among each other, they are concerned they are being monitored, if they choose to change groups the government will have no issues in arresting them,” Rodriguez said.
Although there have been no major indications of cracks within the ranks, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s top military envoy to the US, pledged his support to the opposition. An air force general has also rebelled and urged others to follow.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has said humanitarian aid will enter the country on Saturday.
He called the aid a “test” for Venezuela’s armed forces, who will have to choose if they allow the aid to pass, or if they instead listen to Maduro’s orders.
“We will organise ourselves into brigades,” Guaido said. “The message we have to get through to the armed forces is that they have one week to do the right thing.”
“Will you be on the side of your family and your people or of the usurper who keeps lying?”
But this is not an easy decision to make, analysts said.
“The opposition is trying a very specific strategy, they are not talking to the military members, but to their families,” Rodriguez explained.
“The question is will you let your relatives and friends suffer or die from diseases that we have the medicines for, and that we can deliver” he added. “This decision is not easy, it comes at a high price. A change of opinion within the military ranks can only be exercised through force, that means that if needed they will have to kill their ex-mates to sustain their change. Plus who can guarantee the military that the opposition will prevail? if they don’t prevail, a retaliation will come against them.”
Maduro has called the aid plan a pretext for a US-led invasion. He said his troops are ready to defend the borders with their lives.
“We are ready, mentally, and in arms to defend the motherland. It’s first our homeland, then our homeland, and after our homeland. First dead than kneeling,” Fidel Torin, an active member in the military forces told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the opposition needs a change to take place, but analysts believe this will be difficult.
“The military forces will be the last ones to cross the line, once the situation has been sorted, then they will be able to take a different stand,” Rodriguez said. “But the opposition needs them to be the first ones, not the last.”