04.14.14 9:45 AM ET
Venezuela’s Agony: Weak President, Strong Generals, Riots and Cocaine
In the dark before dawn one night last February, Colonel Googlis Martín Caballero was driving a white Ford Explorer through the Venezuelan countryside not far from the Colombian border. With him were his wife, his daughter and roughly half a ton of cocaine. He probably felt sure nobody would question him, a ranking officer in the country’s National Guard, but, then, that much coke is hard to hide.
At a routine checkpoint, other members of the National Guard detained the colonel. The story of his arrest generated brief headlines in the national papers, making the point, perhaps, that there are limits to what a military man could get away with. But, if so, this was the exception that proves the rule. His capture could have been very bad luck for Col. Caballero. It could have been another officer out to get him, or mere confusion among the soldiers about whose orders to follow. In any case, nobody ever said what happened to the cocaine.
In fact, the Venezuelan military—omnipresent but largely faceless as it makes collective decisions behind closed doors—is becoming the most powerful force in a country where the civilian government of Nicolás Maduro is continuing to lose its grip. Whether the military is corrupt as an institution, or simply has corrupt officers among others who are cleaner, the rise of the generals could present new problems for the United States on issues ranging from cocaine trafficking to oil markets. And what’s certain inside Venezuela is that militarization is helping to destroy the fragile remnants of the country’s democracy.
Venezuela is in dire straits. It closed 2013 with 56 per cent inflation, and this year began with a massive devaluation of its currency. In a country that is one of the world’s great oil producers, subsidized foods which are vital to the poor are disappearing from the shelves, with only four of ten items likely to be available at any given time outside of Caracas. Lines at markets are long and the waits seemingly interminable. Since February, riots have broken out sporadically with 41 deaths so far. Opposition leaders have been thrown in jail. And murder has become, almost, a way of life. Venezuela has the second-highest homicide rate in the world, after Honduras, according to the latest United Nations statistics.
It’s been more than a year now since the death, after a long bout with cancer, of President Hugo Chávez. He had come out of the ranks of the military, to be sure, but his 14-year rule was highly personal and depended to a large extent on his charisma, especially as seen by Venezuela’s poor. When Chávez ran for election, his margins of victory were overwhelming. But when his chosen successor, Maduro, ran for president a year ago with the same party machinery, he won by a scant 1.5 per cent.
Where popular fervor ends, force begins and President Maduro has relied consistently on coercion. In July, to shore up support from the armed forces, he promoted 200 generals-—an all-time record. The local newspaper El Nacional calculated that Maduro assigned 368 members of the military to public office during his first nine months as president. The ministries of water and air transport, of the economy, foodstuffs, industry, electric energy, defense (of course), and the so-called “home affairs, justice and peace” ministry— all are military. Eleven out of 23 governors wear uniforms as well and even the president of the national airline, Conviasa, is a brigadier general.
Martial rhetoric is not far behind. Chávez is constantly remembered as “supreme commander” with variations such as “forever alive and eternal commander.” Attorney Cilia Flores, the first lady, is actually called “First Fighter.” The democratic origins of the Venezuelan revolution are forced to coexist with the war-like idea of threatening external enemies (like the United States) that justify the kinds of exceptional measures Maduro’s government has relied on, increasingly, since serious protests began.
According to every reliable poll, Maduro is steadily losing popularity and his many militant speeches qualifying the opposition as fascists and traitors are not much help. But Maduro’s weakness is not translating into strength for the opposition forces. They always had problems addressing the old populism of chavismo, and they’ve also been slow to adapt their tactics to the new militarism. Street barricades are fading, but they will mean nothing if politicians don’t show more ability to confront an ever less democratic government. So far, Maduro’s falling popularity only means the triumph of militarization.
The foundations certainly have been well laid. They date back to 1992, when young Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez staged a failed coup d’état in the name of national salvation. Later in the decade he and his allies, formally barred from service, mounted a concerted left-wing populist campaign that swept them to power in 1999. As president, Chávez installed some 1,200 soldiers in public office. Then, in 2007, he created the Milicias Bolivarianas, where as many as 800,000 civilians receive uneven military training and, in many cases, weapons. Official rhetoric implies that every Venezuelan is a potential soldier in what’s hailed as “civil-military union,” a motto repeated at every recent government rally.
In practice, men in uniform have become a constant presence in markets and supermarkets where people spend three, sometimes even six hours trying to get subsidized products like milk or corn flour. The whole distribution chain is supervised by the military through organizations that decide where food goes and where it does not.
Venezuela ranks first in South America and thirteenth globally as an arms buyer, but that hardly translates into security. The number of violent deaths in Venezuela is 450 per cent higher today than when Chávez took office. Maduro’s answer was the implementation of Plan Patria Segura: fill the streets with 21,000 soldiers. But the results are far from positive. In the first quarter of this year, the murder rate was just about as high as last year, when Venezuela averaged 79 people killed per 100,000 population, according to NGO Venezuelan Violence Observatory, or 53.7 according to the U.N. (Mexico, with all its drug violence, has a rate of 21.5; the United States on the same chart has a rate of 4.7.)
None of this turmoil bodes well for relations between Caracas and Washington, which were stormy under Chávez and have gotten worse under Maduro. It’s not just their yanqui-go-home demagoguery or camaraderie with Cuba and the Russians that creates problems, it’s the longstanding involvement of many Venezuelan military officers with massive drug smuggling. And, again, Chávez had helped make the problem worse. He quit cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, and despite claims by Venezuela that it actually increased its anti-drug activities after that, events during this first year of the Maduro presidency suggest how bad the situation has become.
The colonel with the half-ton of coke in his car was just one example. In August, the U.S. Treasury named a former captain in the Venezuelan military, Vassyly Kotosky Villarroel, to its list of “drug kingpins.” Last September three Venezuelan National Guard officers were arrested in the country for their alleged role sending 1.3 tons of cocaine on an Air France flight to Paris. Maduro, typically, claimed that this might have been a set-up by the Americans.
As Maduro struggles, new voices are emerging as the standard bearers of chavismo. The minister of home affairs, Gen. Miguel Rodríguez Torres, has revolutionary roots that go back to 1992, when Chávez assigned him to take the presidential residence. That plan failed but Rodríguez Torres became, in Chávez’s eyes, a man of trust. He is now running Plan Patria Segura and the crackdown on recent protests. He is gathering the reins of power in the process.
Maduro probably will hang on to his office for a while. There are no elections this year so, so for the moment the government does not need to enlarge its popular base. The military may be happy to let the civilian president take the heat for all the country’s problems while it continues going about its business. All it needs is cohesion at the top—“civil-military union,” if you will—to make sure, for instance, that when a colonel driving a white Ford Explorer is stopped at a checkpoint, nobody looks very carefully at what he’s got in the car.