MIAMI — After an unprecedented week in Venezuela that brought violent mass demonstrations, the rise of self-declared interim leader Juan Guaidó and numerous countries coming to his support, all eyes are now on the armed forces and whether they will remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro.
With government supporters and the opposition vying for the military’s backing, Venezuela is entering a new chapter of potential turmoil.
The U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory Tuesday to its highest level, warning Americans not to travel to Venezuela "due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
As the country's future weighs in the balance, analysts concede that the military's role is pivotal.
“The military has the guns," said Brian Fonseca, director of Florida International University’s policy institute and an expert on the Venezuelan military. "The military institution is the gatekeeper to either continuity or change.”
In a country that has been in a downward spiral for years, with growing political discontent, inflation and shortages in food and medicine, the armed forces have been crucial to Maduro’s hold on power.
But the country's political crisis appears to have reached a boiling point, with more than two dozen protesters dying in the past week and more mass mobilizations planned for this week. On Tuesday, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek Saab asked the country's Supreme Court to open a preliminary investigation against Guaidó and to freeze his accounts.
Antonio Rivero, a former Venezuelan general exiled in Miami who keeps in touch with military officials in his native country, said he believes it’s unlikely the military will move away from Maduro.
The situation with the armed forces can take a number of directions, Rivero said. But he thinks the most likely outcome is that lower- and mid-ranking officials take a position of disobedience or turn against those in power.
"This is the scenario that is gaining more traction," he said.
Rivero did warn that “any confrontation can lead to a civil war.”
But he said if there is conflict, it would not be prolonged.
He said a drawn-out war would need "50/50 support” for each side, but believes most Venezuelans want Maduro out.
A socialist who succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2013, Maduro was sworn in on Jan. 10 for a second six-year term following an election that was criticized internationally as illegitimate.
Last week, Guaidó declared he had assumed interim presidential powers and vowed to hold fresh elections to restore democracy. Countries around the world, including the United States, have recognized Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader, and he is calling for a protest on Wednesday.
What could be the military's next steps?
José Antonio Colina is a former Venezuelan army lieutenant who fled to Miami in 2003. He now heads Veppex, a Venezuelan exile organization.
“The possibility that the armed forces will completely disavow Nicolás Maduro and support Juan Guaidó is becoming less likely as time goes by,” Colina said.
He thinks protests should be concentrated outside army barracks in order to put more pressure on officers to defect.
The U.S. has been ratcheting up pressure on Maduro to cede power. John Bolton, the national security adviser, said Monday that “the president has made it clear that all options are on the table,” even military intervention.
Fonseca thinks “U.S. military intervention is unlikely and would only be used as an absolute last resort to protect lives.”
So far, the only sign of military unrest came last week when two dozen officers attacked a National Guard outpost in Caracas. That small-scale revolt, which occurred before Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president, was quelled by the government.
However, Bolton said that the U.S. assessment, based on the contacts on the ground in Venezuela, "is that the rank and file of the Venezuelan military is acutely aware of the desperate economic conditions in the country, and we think they look for ways to support the National Assembly government.”
The Trump administration, in its toughest economic action against Venezuela so far, imposed sweeping sanctions Monday on the state oil company, PDVSA, to prevent the government from siphoning off funds.
Maduro says Guaidó is taking part in a coup directed by the Trump administration and has promised to stay in office. He is backed by Russia and China, who have both bankrolled his government.
Fonseca said there are a number of possible scenarios that include the military moving away from Maduro and establishing a junta, or recognizing Guaidó as the interim leader. He said the military can also fracture, leading to civil conflict.
In the last scenario, “it comes down to who controls what assets of the military," he said.
"If you have a group of highly motivated noncommissioned officers with limited material support, they can only fight so hard, especially if they’re fighting more resourced units,” said Fonseca, giving as an example if the air force goes up against the army and the national guard.
“It really depends on how it fractures and where it splits and where those lines of allegiance lie,” he said of the Venezuelan military.
Supporters of Guaidó launched a campaign to try to lure soldiers by handing them leaflets describing a proposed amnesty law that would protect them if they tried to overthrow Maduro.
Maduro, in a show of force Sunday, watched military exercises, alongside Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino. Maduro said it showed he has the backing of the military and that the armed forces are ready to defend the country.
The military is planning larger exercises from Feb. 10 to 15 that Maduro described as the “most important in the history of Venezuela.”
Two Venezuelan government officials in the U.S. have abandoned Maduro recently, including the country’s military attaché in Washington, Col. Jose Luis Silva.
Meanwhile, Canada called an emergency meeting for the 14-nation Lima Group to discuss options for Venezuela. The meeting will be held Feb. 4 in Ottawa. The group was created in Lima, Perú in 2017 to try to help resolve the crisis in Venezuela. Most of the countries, except Mexico, have thrown their support behind Guaidó.
“Right now Guaidó has legitimacy but he has no power," Fonseca said. "Maduro’s legitimacy is being attacked, but he has the power and that’s all because of where the military sits in the equation.”
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