Even with the UK refusing to return more than $1 billion in Venezuelan gold and the US granting opposition leader (and self-proclaimed acting president) Juan Guaido access to Venezuelan state accounts at the Federal Reserve, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro still controls the most important lever of the Venezuelan state: The Bolivarian Armed Forces.
But that grip is beginning to slip as, over the weekend, Col. Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela's military envoy to Washington, became the highest-ranking official to date to officially defect to the opposition. His departure highlighted the most consequential struggle to determine who emerges victorious during the leadership challenge as the US-backed opposition seeks to wrest power from the ruling socialist party.
Col. José Luis Silva told el Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview from Washington, "As the Venezuelan defense attaché in the United States, I do not recognize Mr. Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela." Col. Silva then stated, "My message to all armed forces members, to everyone who carries a gun, is to please let’s not attack the people. We are also part of the people, and we’ve had enough of supporting a government that has betrayed the most basic principles and sold itself to other countries."
Mike Pompeo told the UN Security Council over the weekend that the world must 'pick sides' in Venezuela. But ultimately, the country's military will have the final say over whether Maduro manages to cling to power. Silva was branded a "traitor" by the Venezuelan military and police, while Guaido welcomed him to the opposition.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told a weekend meeting of the UN Security Council that they had to pick a side on Venezuela. "Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem," he said. He added that he hoped countries "will ensure that they disconnect their financial systems from the Maduro regime" without giving details. The US is the largest market for Venezuelan oil, which brings in virtually all the country’s export revenue.
To try and convince the military to abandon Maduro, the Financial Times reported that supporters of Guaido have been handing out copies of an amnesty bill to members of the military promising to absolve them of any crimes short of "crimes against humanity" dating back to 1999. Guaido unveiled the document in a tweet over the weekend.
Supporters have been handing out copies of the law to disgruntled soldiers around the country hoping to encourage them to defect. While some soldiers have accepted the document, in some of the country's worst slums soldiers burned the messages and reaffirmed their allegiance to Maduro. According to Bloomberg, activists have been walking the streets passing out copies of the bill:
Congressman Ismael Leon and other Guaido supporters walked up to the gates of the army command building in the Caracas’ neighborhood of San Bernardino and slipped the amnesty through the bars. The group asked the silent group of guards on the other side to “not raise their weapons against those peacefully protesting.”
“They didn’t want to receive us,” Leon said. “But with their eyes they told us they knew why we were doing what we were doing. They understood us.”
While some two dozen countries, including most of Latin America, have recognized Guaido as the country's legitimate ruler, many others have continued to back Maduro. And more importantly, the country's military has fallen in line behind Maduro, who in a speech on Sunday accused "the Empire" - i.e. the United States - of intervening to try and topple his regime. Though it enjoys a degree of foreign support, the machinery of the state, including not just the army but also the country's courts, have remained firmly on the side of Maduro. But the "amnesty" campaign is the most comprehensive effort yet to win over the military to the side of the opposition.
Meanwhile, though they have largely refrained from mass violence (only 14 people have been killed in the chaos so far), National Security Advisor John Bolton highlighted worries about a possible crackdown by warning the military not to attack supporters of the opposition or US diplomatic personnel in the country.
And though Maduro backed down on his threat to expel US diplomats, he did order Venezuelan personnel at the embassy in Washington to leave their jobs. Reports of them burning documents in the embassy have circulated over the weekend. Adding to the pressure on Maduro, the EU over the weekend gave his administration eight days to hold an election or Europe would cease recognizing his government.
In a demonstration that he remains firmly in control of the country, Maduro watched over the weekend as tanks fired several rounds into a valley near Caracas in a show of force clearly intended to signal to Venezuelans that the military remains on his side.
"They want our armed forces to throw a coup," Maduro told the troops in remarks broadcast on state television. "Well, we’re going to prepare our weapons so no one dares to think of touching our sacred land."
Critics allege that Maduro has won the loyalty of the military by effectively bribing them by allowing corruption, fraud and illegal mining to run rampant.
Still, the country's enduring economic collapse has won Guaido the loyalty of many Venezuelans. Over the weekend, he called for two more street demonstrations during the coming week, a call that was swiftly recognized by the US. He has also told US media that he is "behind the scenes" talks with "government officials, civilians and military men."
If Washington wants to ensure regime change in Venezuela, then the dreaded "military options" reportedly floated by Trump might be the best and only option. Which begs the question: Does this mean a civil war between the socialists and the opposition is imminent?