The conference that took place at Florida International University on Monday, April 30, engendered serious discussions about Venezuela and other regimes that pose a dangerous threat to hemispheric security. The group of speakers was diverse. Academics of all kinds of orientations as well as current and former government officials from different administrations were present and provided their views.
There seems to be a consensus that Venezuela is a narco-state with a dictatorship that will never be willing to give up power. It was recognized that the government has connections with dubious elements and rogue states. Finally, there was concern that China and Russia may increase their presence in the western hemisphere by allying themselves with Venezuela and others.
At the Center for Security Policy, as well as other mostly conservative think tanks, these elements were fully recognized. In multiple briefings we conducted on Capitol Hill, these themes were raised multiple times. However, the participation of members of Congress and Congressional staffers was limited. There was never a bi-partisan recognition of these problems; rather the issue was politicized as it was mostly perceived differently by different parties.
Though this conference was peaceful and civilized, there were differences of opinions and approaches.
One of these disagreements centered around the idea of a military coup d’état as a possible solution to the Venezuelan crisis. That call was made by Juan Cruz, a White House Senior Director for Latin America and a special assistant to the president. Cruz believes in the legitimacy of a military coup given a provision in the Venezuelan constitution (article 350) that states that “the Venezuelan people …should refuse to recognize any regime, law or authority that contradicts the values, principles, and democratic guarantees or whittles away human rights.”
Thus, Cruz called on the Venezuelan military to honor their oath to defend the constitution.
Roger Pardo Maurer, a former undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush Administration supported Cruz’s point by stating that he has always opposed a coup d’état, but this time, under the current circumstances, such a coup should be considered a real option in order to restore freedom and democracy to the Venezuelan people.
Frank Mora, a former undersecretary of defense under President Barack Obama rejected the military coup option by stating that the military is not an agent of democratic change. Professor Eduardo Gamarra from FIU also rejected this route because it sends the wrong message and sets a bad precedent for the future.
Pardo Maurer is right that the current situation in Venezuela is such where democracy is nonexistent. However, Mora and Gamarra may also have a point when they claim that a military coup can lead to indefinite violence and eventually could legitimize the use of the putsch in future situations.
The Armed Forces constitute the pillar that sustains the Maduro regime. Military officers fill half of the cabinet posts and control a good portion of the Venezuelan economy including about 20 state-owned companies. According to reports, salaries of senior military officers are very high but those who rank colonel or below earn approximately what the rest of the population does.
Thus, mid-rank officers and below are suffering the same hardship and starvation as the rest of the population, particularly those who hold low military ranks. In the words of a Venezuelan sergeant: “In this country, nobody is in good shape, except the chavista elite. Whoever thinks that we are better off because we are military men is wrong. We have nothing to eat and we are all paying for the mistakes of a system that has not been able to recognize those who think differently. This is called discrimination.”
This is why officers of the armed forces have recently become more vocal about their discontent. In addition, there have been rumors that a military insurrection could take place.
Thus, the Maduro regime has resorted to a tactic that has been widespread in Cuba: it randomly arrested military officers in order to inflict fear among the armed forces. In March, the Maduro regime arrested a retired general, a former minister of interior (Miguel Rodríguez Torres), and about 20 army commanders. Some of those arrested have been strong and even unconditional supporters of the regime.
By the same token, hundreds of officers and others are requesting to retire from the Venezuelan army. This is creating anxiety among the Venezuelan political and military elites that are afraid of losing important human resources.
Cruz believes that these developments are very encouraging.
However, these expressions of discontent have not been enough to break the military as the main sustaining force of the regime. In fact, the rebellion led by Captain Juan Caguaripano last August was effectively put down. Likewise, Oscar Perez, a former forensic police pilot who attacked the Venezuelan Ministry of Interior last June, was killed by Venezuelan security forces this past January. If those rebellions failed and if enough mid and low-ranking officers still obey the orders of their superiors, this means that more needs to be done to encourage dissent. If the government is still in control of the bulk of the military, the coup is not really a viable option.
The U.S. Administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan individuals responsible for human rights abuses and other crimes. This includes politicians, judges, elections administrators and military officers. So far 44 Venezuelan individuals have been sanctioned including Maduro. Those sanctions were followed by sanctions by other countries, particularly the European Union. Venezuela is definitely feeling some pressure; however, these sanctions are far from enough.
My point is that the number of individuals and officers sanctioned is still small. Sanctions need to be applied to the entire political leadership of the ruling party and all the officers who are above the rank of colonel. The goal should be to further expand the discontent among the Armed Forces and force the officers to realize that the regime’s boat is sinking.
If we increase sanctions to the point of breaking the Venezuelan military, no coup d’état will be needed. If military officers loyal to Maduro see that supporting the regime no longer serves their interests, they may look for ways to abandon the ship. The idea is to create a break between the regime and the military. Perhaps we could provide incentives to these officers to do so by offering pardons, amnesties or other types of spurs.
However, if we support a coup d’état led by mid-rank officers, those actions are likely to either fail or end in a huge blood bath.
The military’s abandonment of Maduro should lead to the surrender of the regime’s elite and this should be followed by a transitional civilian government, not a military one.
The scenario that I have in mind is the 1986 deposal of the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. As the popular uprising intensified key generals in the army loyal to Marcos defected, including the second highest ranked officer (Fidel Ramos) as well as Marcos’ own defense minister (Juan Ponce Enrile). As Marcos proceeded to arrest the latter, the military rebellion erupted.
In the Philippines, the military rebellion joined and followed the general stream of civil disobedience. The military’s dissent made it join a popular social movement, not a military conspiracy. The military did not act as a separate body seeking its own interest. The desertion of high military officers persuaded the government that it could no longer continue in power. No military coup took place. This is what needs to be encouraged in Venezuela.
Let us not waste more time with the gradual approach but apply crippling sanctions now.