One of the standard definitions used to describe a functional state comes from sociologist Max Weber, who described a state as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence or physical force. For stable governments, Weber’s maxim is rarely relevant, and we tend not to think about the significant role that the military or police can play in support of or in opposition to a regime.
In Venezuela, however, after opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced himself the legitimate president, the role of the military may prove to be of paramount importance in the coming weeks.
Optimists hoped that after the United States and most of Latin America recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, the military would abandon Nicolas Maduro and help overthrow the obviously incompetent and corrupt regime in Caracas.
Hoping that he could win the support of the armed forces, Guaidó said in a press conference, “I want to insist, to our military family, our brothers, the moment has arrived for you to put yourselves on the side of the constitution,” and offered amnesty to any officers who chose to support his cause and restore democracy.
These hopes were dashed abruptly on Jan. 24, when Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López announced his support for Maduro and denounced Guaidó’s “disgraceful” stunt, labeling him as an agent for American interests.
López’s definitive declaration of support for Maduro is certainly a blow for the opposition, but it is not yet clear what role the military will have in shaping Venezuela’s future. While the military ostensibly supports Maduro for the moment, they have done nothing to quash Guaidó’s movement, perhaps indicating that a nonviolent solution is still possible.
It would be a mistake to think of the military as a singular, cohesive entity, however. As is typical in kleptocratic regimes, the top brass of the military has close ties to the regime.
In an article for NPR, author John Otis wrote that “the top brass has been shielded from Venezuela’s economic meltdown because these officers receive numerous perks and have been put in charge of lucrative government operations — everything from arms purchases and steel production to food distribution and the vital oil industry.”
As a result, the upper echelon of the Venezuelan military is subservient to Maduro and are unlikely to defect. Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University, noted in an article in The Washington Post that this corrupt relationship between the state and the military elite “essentially tied those military leaders to the survival of the Maduro regime,” and that “to break with the Maduro regime means you’re vulnerable to being arrested.”
The middle and lower tiers of the military are less indebted to Maduro’s government, however, and are clearly less than inspired by their president’s call for “maximum loyalty.” Unlike their superiors, the lower ranked officers and soldiers have felt the effects of the depression and hyperinflation in recent years.
As a result, military desertions have become commonplace, and Maduro’s control over the armed forces is likely to be at an all-time low.
As the foundations of democracy disintegrate in Venezuela, the military will certainly emerge as the crucial entity in determining their country’s fate. The International Crisis Group acknowledged this reality, writing in an analysis of the ensuing crisis, “If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him.”
The developments in the coming weeks will be hugely transformative for Venezuela. While a coup would be disconcerting and would hardly ensure a peaceful return to stability and sensible, democratic governance, one can be certain that allowing Maduro to remain in power would be disastrous.
While other countries have done their part in denouncing Maduro and recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, it will be up to the Venezuelans themselves — specifically the armed forces — to determine what happens to their nation.