How Venezuela’s Military Saved Democracy (For Its Own Reasons)

Venezuela was on the brink of civil war, and that was the last thing the army wanted. But it still wants to be the arbiter of power.

12.17.15 6:00 AM ET

MADRID — On Oct. 26 Nicolás Maduro signed his name to a document he didn’t much like. It was a formal commitment to peace and democracy, regardless of what might happen after the Dec. 6 parliamentary elections. But doubts, grave doubts, remained about his sincerity. For months, polls had shown Maduro’s party, founded by the late President Hugo Chavez, sinking beneath a wave of popular discontent. In fact, Maduro hoped he could count on the Venezuelan military to keep him in power.

Even as the voting approached, the question remained open: Would the generals back the hand-picked civilian successor to Chavez. Maduro was not really one of theirs, after all. Chavez had emerged from the military ranks and a failed coup attempt in 1992 to become a populist demagogue and president from 1999 until his death in 2013. But Maduro was a former bus driver and labor leader who, since he took office, has presided over a collapsing economy. So where would the high command throw its support? How would it protect its own image and extensive interests? Would it back Maduro? Or would it back democracy and, inevitably the opposition?

The key figure in this behind-the-scenes drama was Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López.

Many in the officer corps saw the winds of political change in Venezuelan society and did not want to fall behind. Many, perhaps a majority in the Armed Forces, would vote for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition bloc. But Padrino López has been one of the government’s most faithful supporters, and is a firm ally of the Castro regime in Cuba. He was between a rock and a hard place or, as the Spanish say, between the sword and the wall, and in his hands lay responsibility for stopping—or starting—bloodshed that would be very hard to bring to an end.

According to a report by journalist Antonio Maria Delgado in El Nuevo Herald, as the elections approached tensions soared in the Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters. At a key meeting, faced with all the polls trending heavily against Maduro, Padrino López finally seemed to back away from any role imposing an electoral fraud.

“What is at stake on Sunday is the future of the revolution—and the heads of all those present!” insisted Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan parliament.

The defense minister was at first vague in his response, then firm in his decision, “We each have our responsibilities,” he said, “and I will assume mine.”

After that, the Chavistas knew two things: that they would lose the elections and that the army, or a large part of the army, would not go to the streets to overturn the results.

“There are many gray areas in the accounts of what happened, but it seems clear that the military did not want to validate a fraud and decided to defend the people’s will,” says exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner, who follows Venezuela closely. “People often forget that 95 percent of the military suffers from the same ills as the rest of the Venezuelans. “

On election day, the Venezuelan electoral commission, the CNE, announced that the polls would remain open at least one hour later than the announced 6:00 p.m. closing time if there were voters waiting in line.

The opposition claimed Maduro loyalists were trying to steal the election with last-minute ballots and using false identification papers.

In anticipation of such illegal maneuvers, military officers aligned with the opposition implemented a secret plan known as “Operation 7K,” Montaner reported. It was lead by retired Gen. Ovidio Poggioli, who recruited 7,000 voters as observers. They pulled together election data table by table and sent the results in real time to the opposition, avoiding possible fraud in the count.

The military’s decision to respect the popular will was key to Maduro’s recognition of his defeat, even as he attributed it to “economic war” being waged against him and his country. The father of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López told Spain’s EsRadio radio that if the military had acted otherwise, taking to the streets, “a massacre would have happened.”

In the aftermath, after the opposition had won a supermajority of more than two-thirds of the seats in the national assembly, Maduro thanked Vladimir Padrino López for his loyalty in a baffling speech, which at times sounded like an ironic dirge.

In the time left before the new session of the assembly begins on Jan. 6, Maduro is scrambling to appoint 13 new judges to the Venezuelan supreme court. He has also ordered the military to return to barracks, trying to wrest from them the power they’ve accumulated since 1998. For 17 years, by order of Chavez, military officers have served in public office controlling banking, import and export permits, and customs.

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But this may be less of an affront than it seems. Some credit Vladimir Padrino López with the idea, since by remaining in these key posts, the officers and the military are tainted by the economic disaster.

Maduro has also issue a call to the army that some Venezuelans see as a “pre-coup” announcement: “Prepare to defend the country, and let no one hesitate,” he declared. “We will not allow the right and the bourgeoisie, from the positions of power that have reached, to surrender the sovereignty, independence and justice that have been built during these years of sacrifice.”

But is Venezuela in danger of another coup by disgruntled military officers?

“I think not,” says Venezuelan journalist Eleonora Bruzual. “Many have grown rich enough under the revolution to prefer to keep the money.”

“At the moment, I would say we’re at the point where part of the people have had enough of lies and theft,” said Bruzual, “and another part, who liked the financial support they received, now that it’s running out, are abandoning the Chavista cause.”

Montaner, on the contrary, believes that “in Venezuela there is always the risk of a military coup.”

“The failure of Chavez has been dismal,” says Montaner. His supposed ideology was “an amalgam forged around several misconceptions and an impossible model, the Cuban model, which even Raul Castro is trying to find a way to escape without losing power.” And even in periods looked back on as relatively stable, when Venezuela’s two main traditional parties traded the presidency back and forth, there were numerous attempted coups.

Meanwhile, Maduro has announced he’ll veto an amnesty law for political prisoners, and is making a show of hanging tough.

“A fascist counterrevolution has triumphed using the rules of democracy,” he announced, but claimed the Dec. 6 election results are just a “temporary setback” for the “Bolivarian revolution.”

The next presidential elections are not until 2019, but with the voters against him, and the military backing away from him, it looks as if Maduro’s power is coming to an end.