When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the arrest last week of three Air Force generals for plotting a coup, it wasn't a big surprise.
The military, after all, has played a role in the country's political disputes before — in 2002, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, was removed from office for a whopping 47 hours by a coup that was reversed by loyalist officers. But while the three Air Force generals may very well have links to the "opposition sectors" as Maduro claims, they still wouldn't be the greatest threat he faces from his military commanders.
That's because the generals he should — and almost certainly does — fear are the ones who have become immensely wealthy through the free-for-all Chavismo political ideology championed by Chavez and continued by Maduro. They may ostensibly be on his side, but they will not stand by and watch Maduro allow the system to collapse.
Maduro’s fate depends on whether he can calm the demonstrations sparked by escalating crime and Soviet-style shortages of basic commodities, and his prospects don’t look good. Despite having what OPEC gauges as the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela’s economy has been run into the ground by years of invasive state control and extravagant economic populism funded by the looting of the national oil company, PDVSA.
Chavez chose Maduro as his successor and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela shortly before he died in March 2013. Maduro proceeded to barely win the presidential election with a highly contentious 1.49 percent margin over his rival, Henrique Capriles. Maduro credited his victory in part to a "small bird" he claimed had visited him while he prayed, and which then revealed itself to be the spirit of, you guessed it, Hugo Chavez.
Two months after Maduro's narrow victory, the shortages of basic goods had become so bad that Commerce Minister Alejandro Flemming was forced to announce that "the revolution will bring the country the equivalent of 50 million rolls of toilet paper." Not exactly a T-shirt–worthy slogan.
In the face of increasingly violent protests, Maduro has struggled to offer much in the way of relief. He initially responded by blaming the country's problems on an "economic war" being waged against his government by "capitalists and speculators." His most recent policy to combat commodity shortages is the introduction of electronic ration cards. Given that the government controls — and has recently raised — the prices of a wide variety of goods, this further stranglehold on people’s lives is hardly likely to send home the crowds.
Chavez resorted to buying the loyalty of the military. As a result, key officials were effectively given legal immunity to go into the drug trafficking business.
Whatever the effects on ordinary citizens of Maduro's flailing attempts to quell public unrest, it's the potential risk to the wealth streams of key military figures — and business people close to the regime, or "Boligarchs" — that will likely decide whether he stays or goes.
The Venezuelan military was hardly innocent when Chavez came to power in 1999, but he managed to enforce policies that expanded military corruption to unprecedented levels. As a career officer in the army, Chavez believed that the military should play a strong civic role. And so once elected president, he began assigning the military the job of implementing various social programs for the poor. These programs were allocated hundreds of millions of dollars and placed in the hands of high-ranking officers. Huge portions of those millions mysteriously disappeared.
Despite pledges by Chavez, and now Maduro, to stamp out corruption, the chances of being prosecuted seem to depend largely on the perpetrator’s proximity and usefulness to the president. Raul Bauel, for example, was one of the officers responsible for restoring Chavez to power after the 2002 coup attempt. Bauel was rewarded with a promotion to Defense Minister, and he remained a close ally of Chavez until 2007. That's when Bauel resigned and accused the president of attempting to usurp the constitution by altering it to allow him to stand for a third term as president. Soon afterwards, Bauel was arrested on charges of corruption and sentenced to almost eight years in prison.
Facing mounting external and internal political pressures, Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution became increasingly militant as he focused on maintaining power. To do so, he resorted to naked attempts to buy the loyalty of both underprivileged voters and the military. And so key military officials were effectively given legal immunity to go into the drug trafficking business.
With its extensive Caribbean coastline and porous border with Colombia, Venezuela has long been a key route for wholesale shipments of cocaine. Many of these shipments belong to the Marxist FARC rebels, who fund their decades-long war against the Colombian government with massive narco-trafficking operations. Venezuelan territory became an even more attractive pathway once Chavez kicked out America's DEA in 2005. Colombia, in the meantime, was doubling down on its partnership with the DEA, making it ever harder to move cocaine through Colombian ports.
As the intensity of the demonstrations increases, those with so much to lose are no doubt looking for a scapegoat.
The Chavez government was repeatedly accused by Colombian authorities of maintaining operational links to the FARC — accusations that Chavez fiercely denied. However, several laptops retrieved after the killing of FARC spokesman Raul Reyes in 2008 suggested otherwise. Correspondences on the laptops allegedly confirmed the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Russian and Chinese weaponry to the FARC by the Chavez government.
Leading figures in the Venezuelan Defense Ministry have been accused by the US government of working with the FARC to transport drug shipments through Venezuela for export to the US and elsewhere — including a record haul of 1.3 tons of cocaine seized in Paris last September, the largest seizure of cocaine ever in mainland France. It was believed to be linked to a group within the Venezuelan National Guard known as Cartel de los Soles, or “The Sun Cartel," so-called because of the sun insignias on their uniforms. Among the highest-ranking officers to be accused of trafficking cocaine for the FARC is General Henry Rangel Silva, a former Defense Minister and member of Chavez’s inner circle who was initially tipped to take over after Chavez died last year.
There are plenty of powerful interests who have a great deal to lose if the ruling party is toppled by the protests. Among them, incidentally, is Cuba, which has close connections with the Venezuelan security infrastructure and is heavily dependent on the billions of dollars worth of Venezuelan economic aid, mostly in the form of subsidized oil, promised to them.
As the intensity of the demonstrations increases, those with so much to lose are no doubt looking for a scapegoat. At the same time, many demonstrators are angry about shortages and violent crime, but they otherwise don’t particularly want to see an end to Chavismo. Instead, they blame Maduro alone for the country's problems. If he goes, many demonstrators might be appeased — a fact that is certainly not lost on the military command.
There’s not much Maduro can do to halt the Venezuelan free fall, which many protesters blame on him — and there are extremely powerful people in the military with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So it's likely to be Maduro's friends, not his enemies, who shepherd his fall from power.
Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris