U.S. Offers Sanctions Relief For Army Officers Who Flip On Maduro: Will It Work?

A new report in Bloomberg has documented a slow and steady erosion of Venezuela's armed forces since 2014, but which is a question that gained new impetus since calls at the end of last week by national security advisor John Bolton for military members to defect en masse amidst increasing unrest surrounding large anti-Maduro protests.

Bolton addressed a message last Saturday "to the Venezuelan military high command" which urged, "now is the time to stand on the side of the Venezuelan people. It is your right and responsibility to defend the constitution and democracy for Venezuela!" And on Wednesday afternoon he tweeted a similar appeal, but this time promising sanctions immunity/relief for any senior military officer who defects from Maduro, followed by a threat for those who don't:

The U.S. will consider sanctions off-ramps for any Venezuelan senior military officer that stands for democracy and recognizes the constitutional government of President Juan Guaido. If not, the international financial circle will be closed off completely. Make the right choice!

Image via Fox News

While mass defections amidst the current crisis have failed to materialize, though notably a high ranking Air Force general declared his loyalty to US-backed opposition "Interim President" Juan Guaido days ago, Bloomberg has charted a staggering rise in desertions in recent years based on official state documents it obtained, which suggests that even before Guaido called on the military to switch loyalties, "the government was trying to stop a surge of desertions and ordered border guards to stop soldiers trying to leave the country without permission," according to the report. 

One particular document - Bloomberg has confirmed as authentic - lists a staggering some 4,300 military officers who've deserted the national guard over the past five years:

Two documents illustrate the erosion of the armed forces. One lists about 4,300 national-guard officers who deserted since 2014, giving their ranks and serial numbers. Signed by the guard’s commander, Major General Jesus Lopez Vargas, the Dec. 21 order removes them from rolls. All are non-commissioned officers or enlisted men and women and represented about 6 percent of the guard.

The national guard, as but one branch among the four main ones, has lately become an internal police force of sorts, responsible for putting down dissent and coup plotting. 

In response to this hugely significant 6% decline, Caracas had placed tighter measures on military members' travel and movement even before last month, according the report. 

Currently, active and reserve military remain barred from leaving the country, extremely difficult given that security at all ports of entry and customs checkpoints throughout the country are now tightly restricted. Caracas security forces have further been on high alert for what Maduro and his officials have slammed as a US-led "coup attempt" and plotting related to external meddling, which they've further said neighboring Colombia has played a role in fostering. 

Another internal Venezuelan state document reveals that armed forces personnel had their travel rights taken away as early as last November in order to curtail a rising trend in desertions

The second [document], dated Nov. 13, is signed by Luis Santiago Rodriguez Gonzalez, director of the country’s immigration service. It orders personnel at entry and exit points to prevent members of the military and retirees on reserve duty from going abroad without specific authorization.

Given that the military remains the impoverished Latin American country's central power broker, and given what's now an "open secret" of Washington's direct attempts at fostering a military coup — a key question is just how cohesive and loyal will the military remain?

Estimates commonly put the total number of men and women in the Bolivarian National Armed Forces at around some 365,000 total troops (combined active and reserve among all branches) out of a total population of about 32 million, with tens of thousands of those officers among the country's four branches: army, navy, air force, national guard and reserve. Bloomberg notes a trend that suggests high ranking officers could be increasingly younger, as over "the past eight years, some 1,300 officers have been promoted to the rank of general or admiral, according watchdog group Control Ciudadano."

Prior years' protest and response from National Guard.Image source: Reuters

While the lower ranks of the Venezuelan army attempt to survive on what amounts to $10 a month, the generals remain fiercely loyal as they live large on personal criminal fiefdoms granted by Maduro in the form of "narco-state" perks ranging from drug-running, contracts for hundreds of social housing projects, overseeing ports, money laundering, to fraud  as we detailed recently. This means Guaido's much touted "amnesty offer" will likely do little to encourage what is still a trickle of desertions and defections to become a wave. 

But perhaps what matters most in terms of either the chance of mass defections or a ground swell of decisive street level momentum against Maduro is the loyalty of the National Guard, which is at about 70,000 personnel. It's this wing of the armed forces that's reportedly suffered the 6% desertion rate over the past half decade. 

Bloomberg summarizes the importance of this key institution as follows:

The national guard has been a favorite of Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister who never served in the military. During his six years in office, he has built up its numbers and materiel, increasing its ranks beyond any other branch.

“Maduro elevated the national guard for political reasons, because his problems are internal, not external,” said Cliver Alcala, a retired army general who broke with Maduro and now lives in exile in Colombia. “The national guard became a repressive force used to contain protests and maintain public order.”

And to ensure their ranks stay steady even as pressure builds which could encourage more defections, Maduro announced Saturday the addition of another 30,000 men and women that will form an incorporated "volunteer militia" of sorts

However, as Bloomberg notes most of those appear to be elderly and infirm, which will do little to bolster the already under trained and ill-prepared guard (after 2014 a guard's basic training went from 2 years down to 6 months) for real confrontation. 

It remains that like with other recent US attempts at seizing upon civil unrest to effect a political outcome through covert means, notably in Syria for example, it is unlikely that the government will fall without the army changing its loyalty from the top down.