Since Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela on January 23, 2019, the Armed Force has seen a constant: More service members defect from Nicolás Maduro’s regime each day. According to Guaidó, the number has already reached approximately 600 personnel. Their position is clear: The Chavist ruler is violating the Constitution, and the people’s chosen representative is Guaidó.
“We declare, with full responsibility, that we adhere to our oath of defending our people and enforcing the law and the Constitution of our Republic,” said Bolivarian Army of Venezuela Lieutenant Josué Hidalgo Azuaje in a video dated January 17, on behalf of a group of Venezuelan service members in exile in Peru. “We do not recognize Nicolás Maduro Moros as the president of Venezuela or commander in chief of the National Bolivarian Armed Force”
Lt. Azuaje’s position embodies the thoughts of many service members taking refuge outside Venezuela. It also aligns with the reality within the Armed Force, where analysts and exiled service members say support for Maduro is weakening.
Retired Bolivarian Army of Venezuela General Antonio Rivero, who is in exile in the United States, and José Ricardo Thomas, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, agree that disagreements between the Armed Force and Maduro are not new. Both specialists believe the discord increased after the Chavist leader assumed a new term on January 10, 2018, in spite of the Venezuelan National Assembly and the international community considering it unconstitutional.
Discontent among the Venezuelan military is clear. Exiled soldiers in Colombia issued a press release on January 21, saying they did not recognize Maduro as commander of the Armed Force. On the same day, Bolivarian National Guard officials attempted to revolt in Caracas. As a result, authorities detained 27 service members. On February 23, at least 100 troops defected from Venezuela’s military and requested asylum in Colombia when Guaidó attempted to bring humanitarian assistance into Venezuela through the Brazilian and Colombian borders.
Maduro only controls senior officers
For Thomas, Maduro’s leadership is only effective over part of the military leadership, as most service members in lower ranks also suffer from the crisis. As such, they question Maduro’s decisions.
“Where Maduro seems to retain some support is in the senior leadership, because they are involved in Chavist businesses, and Maduro increased their political participation to have them as allies. Information about what really goes on at garrisons between senior officers and the rest of the military isn’t seamless, [so] there’s a lot of speculation, but it’s a proven fact that there have been seven internal uprising attempts [from 2018 to 2019], which is a clear sign of discontent,” Thomas told Diálogo. “The lower ranks suffer from the crisis just like the rest of Venezuelans who aren’t related to Maduro, so that’s where the discontent is.”
Maduro’s decision to assume a new—and in the eyes of opponents and the international community—illegitimate term in office, makes his administration increasingly unpopular, said Gen. Rivero. According to the officer, military members are loyal to the institution due to their training. Maduro is not only violating the Constitution, but as an illegitimate president he also fails to qualify as the legitimate commander of the Armed Force.
“This is a difficult effect to measure, because military leaders are the only ones talking, and they support Maduro. But we know that there is considerable opposition to Nicolás Maduro’s illegal power grab, and this drives many service members to express their discontent,” Gen. Rivero told Diálogo. “For the Armed Force, having an illegitimate commander shouldn’t be a viable option.”
According to the retired officer, Guaidó’s leadership at the National Assembly and his self-proclamation as Venezuela’s interim president further weaken the military. “Some service members expected Guaidó to be sworn in so they could [have a legal basis to] oppose Maduro’s illegal government. They recognize that Maduro assumed power illegally, and more troops might switch to Guaidó’s command,” he added.
The Guaidó-led National Assembly committed to approve amnesty for civil and military officials who cooperate to restore constitutional order. At least 50 countries recognize Guaidó as president, including the United States and most Latin American nations.
After Guaidó’s self-appointment, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Maduro to resign and the Venezuelan military to protect and support democracy and Venezuelan citizens. “The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolas Maduro’s disastrous dictatorship,” said Pompeo via Twitter. “We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people.”
The situation is complex: Venezuelans continue to protest and Maduro’s leadership continues to weaken. Amid the crisis, the Armed Force seems to be slowly moving toward restoring the constitutional order.