Sunday was a long day for Venezuelans.
Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a National Guard captain wanted for treason, who had been in hiding for a couple of years, released a video claiming that he had led a group that took Paramacay Fort in western Venezuela. He called his brothers in the Venezuelan armed forces to join him in bringing back constitutional order to a country in the midst of chaos.
According to the government version, the situation was dealt with swiftly, and most of the “terrorists” were captured (including two who were killed). The president, on his regular TV show, Sundays with Maduro, said the attack was the work of civilian mercenaries dressed in military clothes who were paid by foreign powers to destabilize and overthrow him. Then, he admitted that some had escaped and had taken weapons from the garrison.
When explaining what happened and why the soldiers manning the fort were taken off guard, Maduro said, “It was Sunday, they were resting, and most of the troops in that unit were training in Russia.”
Considering the extreme situation in Venezuela—the worst economic and institutional crisis the country has faced—news of a military uprising would surprise no one around the world, except for Venezuelans, who still remain skeptical that this could actually be happening.
Strangely enough, even one day after the event no one was talking about it. Why is this?
After hundreds of disinformation campaigns by the government, Venezuelans have developed a resolute resistance to government claims about international conspiracies and plots to depose the president. Plus, the idea that the military is behind Maduro’s dictatorship has been embedded in our brains since the days of Hugo Chávez.
Indeed, “Chavismo” itself, now virtually a pseudo-religious movement, was born from a failed military coup in 1992 by then Lt. Col. Chávez, who finally become president in 1999 and served (apart from a brief hiatus in 2002 when he had to put down a coup against him) until his death in 2013.
Throughout his rule, Hugo Chávez was careful to reward his former comrades in arms with political positions near him, creating a new political class of retired military coup mongers; as well as providing certain parcels of power, and a glimpse over the fence to the political world, for active officers.
According to the previous constitution, the military in Venezuela were not allowed to get involved in politics. They weren’t even allowed to vote. So when Chávez’s new constitution gave them the right to cast a ballot and to be politically active, he opened the floodgates. Back then, most high government posts were held by people from the military sector.
But in the end it hasn’t been political power—or the responsibility one expects to go with it—that the men (and women) in green seem to crave.
So, what makes the Venezuelan military tick?
Well, cash. And loads of it.
When there were enough petrodollars to go around, Chávez was able to spread the wealth among his ex peers, even if not equally, in a sufficiently generous manner to keep them happy. He put them in key positions, and gave them leeway to do as they pleased.
At the core of this design was the Unión-Cívico Militar (Civilian-Military Union), perhaps the most damaging piece of know-how provided by the Cuban government in exchange for a few billion in oil barrels.
While some generals would have their hands directly on a piece of the pie, like running the ports authority or the power grid with multimillion-dollar budgets; rising officers would benefit from generous social plans that gave them access to cars and new homes.
For the guys in the barracks, a big part of their benefits came from the crumbs of big business, like charging fees to approve an inspection at customs and other enterprises that have become commonplace in Venezuelan commercial relations, but in other parts of the world are recognized as forms of extortion.
In Venezuela a big part of the control scheme had to do with not controlling crime, which was where the money was for active officers who didn’t hold a political post. Which explains where the gravy is for officials such as Minister of Justice Néstor Reverol, who’s under indictment by in U.S. courts for, among other things, “using his position of power [at the National Anti-Drug Organization] to enable drug trafficking organizations, all the while hindering law enforcement’s efforts to thwart them.
Venezuela has been a known hub for cocaine distribution ever since the Colombian army took a laptop from a guerrilla leader over 10 years ago, which revealed that they were exporting drugs to the U.S. through Venezuela with the aid of the Venezuelan armed forces.
When talking about crime and corruption, however, all heads turn toward Diosdado Cabello, a stocky man with beady eyes, who’s said to be the capo di tutti capi. Mr. Cabello, or Captain Cabello—a few years ago he was promoted from lieutenant even when he was retired and holding a civilian post—was president of the former parliament and is a high ranking member of the government party. Although it was said Chávez sent him to the doghouse on occasion for accumulating too much power, he sat at the supreme commander’s right hand during Chávez’s farewell speech.
There have been several accusations against Cabello over the years, many involving him with drug trafficking schemes. Including a feature by The Wall Street Journal which reported that a source revealed there was an ongoing investigation for drug trafficking against Cabello. Even when there has not been a public confirmation of this, in those days Venezuelan government media invented a White House Spokesman who said that these reports were false.
Cabello, who now has a recurring Twitter feud with Marco Rubio, where Rubio calls him the new Pablo Escobar, and Cabello responds by calling the Republican congressman Narco-Rubio, has been mysteriously excluded from the most recent sanctions by the U.S. government to Venezuelan officials.
Although Cabello doesn’t hold a high ranking position within the government or the military, his hierarchy within the chavista regime remains solid. Even when at times it may seem as if he’s losing ground to Maduro’s political group, his “untouchable” quality appears to be intact. It is not uncommon to see top Armed Forces brass sitting first row during his weekly talk show—which has been known to run for five hours straight.
The past few months have been murky, especially regarding information on what’s going on in the military world, but sources in different components insist that the unrest through the ranks has been off the charts. In part because of the over 100 violent deaths for which government security forces are responsible, and in part because of the illegal Constituent Assembly that was convened this week.
But deep down, the truth is that the good old days are gone and now Maduro struggles to keep the military happy. With eroding means of production there are not many options to keep them at bay. One year ago the president transferred the oversight and control of the public food distribution system—which relies heavily on imports—to the military, saying that in order to fight off scarcity, as a battle within the Economic War, they would require the help of a prominent military tactician of the stature of the minister of defense, Gen. Vladimir Padrino-López.
But that was one year ago, and that food distribution system is crumbling as the country starts to get acquainted with hyperinflation.
Those who don’t benefit from the regime directly are disgruntled as they’ve lost positions of power (to close Maduro associates) and find themselves face to face with the everyday chaos created by chavismo’s mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy.
The same officers that used to get cars and apartments, now get a bag of food and two rolls of toilet paper.
If there is so much unrest why haven’t there been any forces challenging the government? Well, there have. And the government purposely has informed—perhaps exaggerating a bit—that these situations have been handled. Any manifestation or signal that a group of military dissidents is being vocal about the country’s situation has been quashed swiftly and selectively. These groups, as many as they may be, have been strategically separated and are under strict intelligence surveillance (thank you, Fidel).
There have been conflicting accounts on what went down on Sunday in Paramacay. Some journalists covering the military source reported that close to one 100 automatic rifles and four grenade launchers were taken, and that the rebel operation was a success. Other military experts say that this is a counterintelligence operation by the government.
With suspicious radio silence two days after the Paramacay “uprising”—there was just a presser by the minister of defense confirming what President Maduro said, this event just sounds like another embarrassing moment of a sadly deprofessionalized Venezuelan institution.
Many expect the institutional armed forces to show their face for the first time in over 20 years and stop the crisis that has families scavenging through trash for food and children dying of malnutrition. Sadly, things in the military are not about doing what is right. They are about incentives.