By courting the Venezuelan military, President Nicolás Maduro is attempting to strengthen his mandate.
The success of Hugo Chávez Frías, Venezuela’s most well-known president to date, depended on four main factors: Venezuela’s rich oil reserves, support from the workers unions, personal charisma and allies within the Venezuelan military. Emulating his successor, current president Nicolás Maduro Moros tried to adopt the first three of these aspects with questionable results. Now his promotion of prominent military officers and creation of an army-run television station in December indicate that he is now focussing on gaining military support.
Mr. Chávez used Venezuela’s vast oil reserves to create a strong political position by rewarding his South American allies with cheap oil, becoming a significant supplier to the United States and undertaking domestic social projects with the proceeds. Yet Venezuelan oil production has now plateaued and public deficit is about 15% of the GDP, meaning that Mr. Maduro will have to change economic policy if he wishes to keep the country afloat.
As a former bus driver and trade union leader, it appears Mr. Maduro had hoped to compensate for his lack of military backing by creating Las Milicias Bolivarianas (The Bolivarian Militias). According to Hernán Castillo, Professor at the Universidad de Simón Bolivar and expert in Venezuelan civil-military relations, these groups of armed workers constitute what is in effect a private army for the president. However the loyalty of these militias may not hold if power cuts, high accident rates and inefficient production in state-owned factories continues.
Having beaten his presidential rival in the ballots by only 1.8%, Mr. Maduro is trying to compensate for lack of public support by emphasising his role as Mr Chávez’s successor. He claims that Mr. Chávez has returned to show his support (once as a small bird and later by showing his face on the wall of a metro tunnel) and has adopted his mentor’s anti-US and anti-capitalist rhetoric by blaming “right-wing” sabotage for Venezuela’s poor economy and Mr. Chávez’s death. Yet unlike his predecessor who inspired the public with unforgettable speeches, Mr. Maduro does not have the charisma to convert these radical accusations into popular support.
With dwindling success in these other areas of support, it appears that Mr. Maduro is now hoping to secure the support that he previously lacked in the military sector. His announcement on the 27th of December that officers Diosdado Cabello, Francisco Arias Cárdenas and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín would be promoted to Captain of the Army, Colonel of the Armed Forces and Rear Admiral of the Republic respectively is an attempt to gain support among influential military figures. These figures were all involved in the 1992 military coup in which Mr Chávez made his name, suggesting that Mr. Maduro is aiming to secure the support of what remains of Mr. Chávez’s military following. He also announced that TV FANB, the army’s public television channel, would be launched on the 28th December, giving the army a larger public presence and voice.
The significance of these promotions should not be underestimated. In Venezuela the military has historically played an important role and continues to do so today. Since Simón Bolivar’s military victories against the Spanish Empire led to the creation of Gran Colombia, a state encompassing most of modern-day Venezuela and whose colours now appear in the Venezuelan flag, army officers have exercised political influence. There were seven successful military coups and a ten-year military dictatorship in the twentieth century alone, and Mr. Chávez’s political power originated from the military.
During his presidency, Mr. Chávez maintained his military links, often appearing in uniform and rewarding his military cohorts with governmental positions; at his death last year, eleven of twenty state governorships were held by military officers. As Prof Castillo points out, Mr. Chávez’s assurance of military “cooperation in maintaining public order and active participation in national progress” in Article 328 of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution guarantees military pressure on civil institutions.
It is widely held that there has been little military loyalty towards Mr. Maduro: former General Antonio Rivero has publicly said that “Chávez knew how to talk to the military…Maduro hasn’t the slightest idea” and Prof Castillo describes the relationship as one of “mistrust”. What is more, as Mr. Chávez discovered during the attempted military coup attempt of 2002, even if Mr. Maduro gains the support of certain officers, he is still susceptible to uprisings from opposition factions. Prof Castillo divides the current officers into three main factions: those who support the government, those who are discontented and the “opportunists”.
There are two reasons why Mr. Maduro’s choices of promotions were wise. Firstly, he is sending a clear message that supporters will be rewarded. As Prof Castillo highlights, the Venezuelan army currently has 1875 generals and the best way to get promoted is through loyalty to the president. Since the 1999 Constitution eliminated the need for parliamentary approval, this right of promotion lies exclusively with the President of the Republic. Thus, not only does Mr. Maduro need the army, but the army needs him.
Secondly, by promoting Diosdado Cabello Mr. Maduro is keeping his enemies close. Mr Cabello was Mr Maduro’s principal rival as Mr. Chávez’s successor, was vice-president under the latter and is currently President of the National Assembly. As Mr Cabello commands personal loyalty from a large section of the military, alienating him could have fatal consequences for Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Maduro has big shoes to fill and economic challenges ahead. His narrow presidential victory has been followed by an unpromising presidency, as the future of Venezuelan oil and his unionist support looks uncertain, and the media speculate about the possibility of civil war. Gaining military support should help Mr. Maduro consolidate his mandate and better weather the difficult times ahead. By giving officers certain privileges and emphasising common ground through loyalty to Chávez, Mr. Maduro greatly increases his chances of holding Venezuela together.
The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review would like to thank Professor Hernán Castillo and Frédérique Langue for their contributions to this article.