The July election in Venezuela was marked by violent clashes and casualties. Amid the current climate of political turmoil, support from the armed forces is crucial to President Maduro’s political survival, says Amanda Lapo.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

By Amanda Lapo, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis, IISS

On 30 July 2017, Venezuela held an election for a new National Constituent Assembly. President Nicolás Maduro called for the vote in an attempt to consolidate his power by modifying the constitution, and at the same time sideline the role of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. In a controversial ballot, marked by violent clashes (there were at least ten casualties) and large-scale protests, the Venezuelan people elected the new assembly with a 41.53% turnout, according to the government, but only 12% according to the opposition. In parallel, Maduro has been attempting to secure his position by bolstering the support of a key constituency, the country’s armed forces.

Amid the current climate of political turmoil and widespread violence in Venezuela, Maduro has re-emphasised the role of the armed forces as guarantors of security, saying at the 206th Independence Day parade on 5 July that ’the unity and the loyalty of the Armed Forces is the only key to peace’. With Maduro losing popular backing, support from the armed forces is crucial to his political survival. Throughout his term in office, Maduro has sought to secure that support by systematically delivering economic benefits and capability enhancements to the armed forces.

Growing business interests

From the start of his presidency, Maduro has favoured the top echelons of the armed forces, in part by expanding the involvement of the military in business. For example, between 2013 and 2017, the Ministry of Defence created 12 new military-run defence companies, including the Military Company of Mining and Oil and Gas Industries Ltd, guaranteeing to the armed forces revenues from the mineral-extraction and petroleum-refining sectors. More recently, the implementation in April of Plan Zamora – which increased the presence of the military on the streets of Venezuela – has afforded the armed forces direct control over the distribution of essential goods such as food and medicine.

Having increased the military’s involvement in the economy, Maduro between 2013 and 2016 consolidated its political influence by nominating ten former officers as cabinet ministers. In June 2017, Maduro reshuffled the entire Chiefs of Staff Committee and nominated new commanders for all eight strategic regions.

By appointing loyalists to the higher ranks, the president is attempting to reduce discord within the armed forces. As several news outlets have reported, dissent seems to be widespread among the lower ranks. According to one account, since the beginning of the anti-government protests in April 2017, 123 junior officers have been detained and accused of insubordination, treason or theft. Maduro has adopted a carrot and stick approach, praising the ’loyalists’ and harshly punishing the ’traitors‘.

Expanded forces

Simultaneously, Maduro has announced ambitions to expand the National Guard, the National Police and the Bolivarian Militia. According to the government plan, the first two forces will comprise 20,000 personnel each, while the voluntary militia aims to reach 500,000 armed civilians. In 2016, by presidential decree, the government initiated a process of formally giving public-order roles to paramilitary groups. One of these groups, known as the motorisados, reportedly backed the National Guard during clashes in Caracas between April and May this year. By empowering internal-security forces and voluntary civilian militias, Maduro is trying to widen his support base. Indeed, the expanded Bolivarian militia outnumbers the comparatively small but well-equipped armed forces.

At the same time, Venezuela’s armed forces have long-benefited from both Maduro’s and his predecessor Hugo Chávez’s generous defence programmes. Although 2016 saw an unprecedented economic contraction, with inflation at 254.9% and a 56% cut in the defence budget, Venezuela has over the past seven years allocated 1.41% of GDP to defence. Between 2011 and 2015, the country ranked eighteenth in the world in expenditures on military equipment. The presence at July’s military parade of imported, modern Chinese and Russian equipment, such as T-72B1 main battle tanks, VN-16 light tanks, Su-30MKV Flanker combat aircraft and S-300VM (Antey-2500) air-defence systems, clearly reflected the government’s efforts to boost military capabilities and morale.

Nevertheless, the political situation in Venezuela remains unpredictable. The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Maduro a day after the 30 July election, freezing his assets under American jurisdiction, condemning ‘Maduro’s efforts to undermine Venezuela’s democracy and the rule of law’ and urging those elected to the National Constituent Assembly not to take office. Further internal instability and international pressure may exacerbate fissures within the armed forces and in civil–military relations.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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