The Inflection Point: Venezuela's Military Begins To Defect, March With Protesters

One month ago, when discussing the latest "explosive" turn in Venezuela's political situation, we predicted that the worst case for president Nicolas Maduro who has so far managed to keep the army on his side even as Venezuela faces now daily violent and in some cases deadly protests, would be the start of the local army turning on the regime, and defecting to join the protesters. Overnight, according to Thor Halvorsen of the Human Rights Foundation, this "inflection point" appears to have arrived when he observed in a Tweet that "the military in parts of Venezuela has begun to defect. They are now marching *with* the protesters. Dozens of soldiers are under arrest."

Touching on this topic, overnight the NYT mused why have Venezuela's "powerful political and military elites stuck by President Nicolás Maduro", noting that "the country would seem to be a prime candidate for something scholars call an “elite fracture,” in which enough powerful officials break away to force a change in leadership."

“The fact that it hasn’t happened in the last two years is the biggest puzzle of all,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist. “If it happens next week, all of us will say, ‘Yeah, it was bound to happen.’”

The NYT further notes that the government has been preparing its defenses since 2002. That year, amid major protests, Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, ordered the military to impose order.

It instead removed him in a coup that was quickly reversed. After that, Mr. Chávez packed the military with allies. The military also gained vast patronage streams, which some local officials say include control over gold mining.

 

The impossibility of fully predicting how the military might decide in another crisis, along with growing unrest that could again test it, has left the government nervous.

All that may now be changing. In March, a video spread on social media showing three lieutenants who said they no longer recognized Mr. Maduro’s authority. The next month, they turned up in Colombia, where they requested asylum. The Venezuelan government has publicly demanded their return, which Mr. Levitsky called “pretty clear evidence that the government is worried about some sort of conspiracy” within the ranks.

The latest open army defections threaten to further splinter what until recently was a united front among the "elites" supporting the crumbling Maduro regime.

Meanwhile, as the death toll from the recent protests approaches 40, women banged on pans and some stripped off their shirts on Saturday protesting Venezuela's government in an event the opposition billed as a "women's march against repression."

As they marched, local media carried a video showing people toppling a statue of the late President Hugo Chavez the day before in the western state of Zulia, the Associated Press reported. The local media reported that students destroyed the statue as they vented their anger with the food shortages, inflation and spiraling crime that have come to define life here.

"Several young men could be seen bashing the statue that depicted the socialist hero standing in a saluting pose, as onlookers hurled insults as the late president."

Describing the women's protest, AP writes that thousands of women took over streets in major cities all around the South American country.

Wearing the white shirts of the opponents of country's increasingly embattled government, the women sang the national anthem and chanted, "Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Freedom!"

 

Some sported makeshift gear to protect against tear gas and rubber bullets. Others marched topless. One woman came in her wedding dress.

Meanwhile, as has been the case almost every day for the past five weeks, police in riot gear again took control of major roads in the capital city. Clashes between police and protesters have left some three dozen dead in the past month.

And as has also been the recurring case, on Friday Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez denounced the protest movement, and said opposition "terrorists" were attempting a kind of nonconventional warfare. 

For now, the protest movement, which has drawn masses of people into the street nearly every day since March, shows no sign of slowing. On Saturday, some of the women marchers approached soldiers in riot gear to offer them white roses and invite them to join the cause. "What will you tell your kids later on?" one woman asked.

As Reuters reported earlier in the week, embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday announced the creation of a new popular assembly which demonstrators decried as a power grab aimed at sidelining the National Assembly. Borges responded by calling on Venezuelans to rebel.

According to Bloomberg, on a call with the president of Peru, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. A statement from the White House's Office of the Press Secretary said Trump underscored to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski that "the United States will work together with Peru in seeking to improve democratic institutions and help the people of Venezuela." The administration added that it is monitoring Venezuelan instability, and believes there is a strong need to bring weeks of anti-government protests in the country's capital Caracas to a quick and peaceful conclusion.

“We are deeply concerned about the Maduro government’s violent crackdown on protestors in Venezuela. President Maduro’s disregard for the fundamental rights of his own people has heightened the political and economic crisis in the country,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in a statement. “The Maduro regime must respect Venezuela’s constitution and the voice of its people. We are particularly concerned that the government is failing to provide basic food and medical needs to the Venezuelan people,” Haley said.

H.R. McMaster, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser, met on Friday with Julio Borges, the president of Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly, about the civil unrest which has been near-daily for five weeks, the White House said on Saturday.

Finally, assuring that daily protests are only set to escalate further, on Saturday Borges, the leader of the left-wing party in Venezuela called for open rebellion as well as Maduro's resignation, while rejecting any "dialogue" with the administration.

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