BEFORE Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, delivered his second May Day address, spelling out plans for a new constitution, he paused to acknowledge some VIP guests. A dozen generals, in full ceremonial uniform, were in the audience. He asked them to stand and be applauded.
It was a telling moment. Mr Maduro is facing the biggest threat to his rule since he took office in 2013. Four-fifths of the “pueblo” he claims to represent want him to stand down. Street protests, provoked by shortages of food and the regime’s thuggery, erupt daily and are sometimes massive. The economy is in such an appalling state, and inflation is so high, that Venezuelans greeted a rise of 60% in the minimum wage on May 1st with shrugs of “so what?” A political shift to the centre-right in several of Venezuela’s neighbours makes Mr Maduro’s “Bolivarian” socialist regime look ever more isolated.
But, for the president, none of that may matter. His future will be decided by the armed forces, not directly by the people. If they withdraw support from his beleaguered regime, change will come soon. If not, hunger and repression will continue.
So far, there is little sign of dissent in the top ranks. Vladimir Padrino López, the head of the armed forces and minister of defence, hailed Mr Maduro’s call for a new constitution as “a clear demonstration of democratic will”. With that, he endorsed the latest stage in the president’s progressive dismantling of democracy.
The constitution Mr Maduro wants to replace is the handiwork of Hugo Chávez, his political mentor, who died in 2013. The 500 members of the constituent assembly that will convene to write it will have almost absolute power while they deliberate. Half will be appointed. The rest will be selected by “people’s committees” similar to communist soviets. The whole process is intended to pre-empt other meaningful political activity. It will distract attention from the regime’s subversion of the existing constitution. It has carried this out by, for example, depriving the opposition-controlled legislature of its rightful powers.
All eyes turn to the men in green
The opposition is increasingly directing its appeals to the armed forces, or to factions within them. Julio Borges, the legislature’s president, says it is time for the men in green to “break their silence”. Henrique Capriles, a potential challenger to Mr Maduro who has been banned from seeking office for 15 years, asked ordinary soldiers to consider whether they want to “share the fate” of the doomed ruling party.
The army is not the regime’s only prop. The National Guard fires tear-gas at and wields truncheons against demonstrators; informal gangs called colectivos enforce submission to the regime in neighbourhoods and are responsible for many of the 33 deaths in protests over the past month. Mr Maduro wants to provide a half-million guns to an expanded “national militia”, a sort of home guard.
But the armed forces, though constitutionally required to be apolitical, are the final arbiters of power. Chavismo, the movement that guides the regime, has been military-led since its inception. Chávez began his career in politics as a left-wing commander who attempted a coup in 1992 (and won a presidential election six years later). Officers or former officers run 11 of the 32 ministries; 11 of the 23 state governors are retired officers. Mr Maduro has been a prolific producer of generals. On one day last year he promoted 195 officers to that rank, bringing their number to more than 2,000. The United States somehow gets by with no more than 900 generals.
The Venezuelan top brass are not a monolithic group. There are “diverse” factions, both between and within branches of the armed forces, says Rocío San Miguel, a lawyer and defence specialist. A group of “originals” fought alongside Chávez in 1992. They include Diosdado Cabello, a former president of the legislature and still-influential hardliner. An overlapping clique helps drug-trafficking gangs through its control of ports and airports. A bigger group of non-ideological “opportunists” dabbles in that and other businesses.
These divisions matter less than the generals’ shared interest in the regime’s survival. Most profit handsomely from Mr Maduro’s chaotic rule. Some have access to dollars at the ridiculously cheap price in bolívares set by the government. The army is in charge of the lucrative business of food distribution, a recipe for abuse.
The lower ranks are less happy, though they are better housed than most Venezuelans and some profit from sidelines such as smuggling. According to Caracas Chronicles Political Risk Report, a journal with sources in the armed forces, DCI, an agency that snoops on the barracks, has been hearing of “deepening disaffection”, especially in the army’s middle ranks, since February, before the latest protests began. Much of this appears linked “with mid-ranking officers barely bothering to suppress their contempt for a general staff it perceives as corrupt”, it reported. In April three lieutenants posted a video saying they rejected Mr Maduro as commander-in-chief. They sought asylum in Colombia.
Raúl Baduel, a jailed former defence minister, has become an icon for dissenters. They share a 14-second recording in which he says he is in prison because he spurned “the scoundrels and criminals …who give you orders”. Junior soldiers, and their families, share the privations that drive Venezuelans onto the streets in protest. They are angry. But that does not mean that they will stop following orders.