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Early this September, during a shakeup of his cabinet, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made a surprising pick. Rodolfo Marco Torres, his nominee for vice president for the economy, was a former brigadier general in Venezuela’s army. He had first stepped into politics as head of a state bank in 2005 and had been rising through the civilian ranks since then. Earlier this year, he became minister of finance, and then he made history this past June as the first military officer to join the central bank’s board of directors. Now, after only eight months in the minister’s chair, he will take charge of Venezuela’s battered economy.
Torres is not alone. He is among tens, if not hundreds, of former army officers who have secured high government posts over the past two decades thanks to their loyalty to the late President Hugo Chávez, and his successor, Maduro. These days, the Venezuelan state’s every move bears the army’s fingerprints. With these postings, Maduro seeks to shore up his rule, but many fear that he will lead the country down an uncomfortable and unhealthy path.
Chávez, who was himself a lieutenant-colonel when he took charge of the antigovernment uprising in the 1990s, often boasted that the principal accomplishment of his 14-year presidency was forging a union between Venezuela’s military and civilian authorities, which, he believed, strengthened the socialist revolution. At the same time, however, he never wanted the military’s influence to get out of hand. Recalling the Venezuelan army’s history of political intervention -- the country was under military rule for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- Chávez stipulated that the military serve the civilian government as a whole and maintain no political affiliation (provisions that were eventually worked into the constitution).
To split the difference and bind the army to his cause, following his inauguration in 1999, Chávez installed military men in senior positions at key government ministries and major state companies, such as the oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. He also used soldiers in public projects to clean up streets and schools under the Plan Bolívar 2000. Soon, however, he allowed the military to greatly expand its influence. An unsuccessful attempt by the military to topple his regime in 2002 made Chávez determined to fully co-opt the armed forces. He purged the ranks of officers with suspect political beliefs and then worked to cement the loyalty of those who remained.
He granted the country’s 15,000 top officers preferential access to housing and cars, both of which were (and still are) in short supply. The government also simplified loan procedures for military personnel and set up a specialized state bank to cater to their needs. To keep the top brass happy, Chávez splurged on weaponry, buying state-of-the-art jets, tanks, and hardware from China and Russia. Annual military expenditures -- which stood at less than $1 billion in 1998, the year before Chávez took office -- totaled close to $10 billion by the time he died in 2013, even though the country hasn’t fought a war in decades.
Never fully trusting the officers, though, Chávez invited Cuban military advisers to help him oversee the 350,000-strong armed force. He also created a Praetorian Guard of civilian militias and reservists who seemingly answered to the president alone. They now number 70,000.
Picking up where Chávez left off, Maduro and his supporters have sought to make the armed forces defenders of not only the nation but the revolution itself. Soldiers now greet their officers with the chant “Chávez lives, the fight continues.” And thanks to a recent supreme court ruling that amended a provision on the army’s political neutrality, military personnel can now join political rallies, as long as they are pro-government. (Demonstrating for the opposition could lead to arrest for plotting against the state.) The army’s supreme commander, General Vladimir Padrino, recently dispelled any lingering illusion of the army’s nonpolitical role, calling the armed forces “chavista” and adding that Maduro can “count on our loyalty.”
And that brings us to this September, when Maduro built his new cabinet. Now, military men hold several key portfolios, including defense, electricity, food, industry, interior and justice, and transportation -- not to mention finance. Eleven of Venezuela’s 23 states are headed by former army officials. Military men (both retired and on active duty) also serve in the country’s National Assembly, staff its diplomatic missions abroad, and head its tax and import agencies.
The military’s political involvement seems poised to grow still further because of Maduro’s crumbling public support and the country’s accelerating political and economic crises. And that is worrying. It now appears possible that the army could be called upon to dispel antigovernment rallies. Opposition politicians also fear that the military would not accept opposition political victories, a pressing question given that Maduro’s fading popularity could allow them to win control of the National Assembly in the upcoming congressional elections (tentatively scheduled for the end of 2015). The armed forces are tasked with transporting the ballots to Caracas as well as with guarding all precincts before, during, and after the voting -- responsibilities that could give troops significant sway over the outcome of the polling.
Venezuela’s opposition has strenuously protested the military’s expanding political role, citing Chávez’s now-overturned constitutional ban on military politicization and decrying reports of increasing corruption and abuse of authority among the armed forces. They have good reason for concern. Before Chávez took office, the Venezuelan military regularly received high marks in surveys measuring armies’ professionalism and impartiality, partially as a result of four decades of civilian rule. These rankings have since plummeted, and top officers stand accused by foreign law enforcement officials of shady dealings in the drug business and contraband.
In one prominent example, at least nine active and former military officers -- including two state governors and the former head of military intelligence -- have landed on the U.S. blacklist for alleged ties to Colombia’s drug traffickers. So widely acknowledged is the army’s involvement in the Venezuelan black market that critics have taken to calling it the sun cartel, after the stars that dot the generals’ uniforms.
Analysts point out that whereas the military used to simply turn a blind eye to shipments of drugs passing through Venezuela’s borders, now it actually helps organize them. Perhaps that explains the government’s remarkable lack of progress in investigating a large cocaine shipment from Venezuela that was seized in Paris last year. The shipment -- at 2,900 pounds, the largest ever bound for mainland France -- had allegedly been placed on an Air France flight by members of Venezuela’s National Guard. One year later, Caracas has yet to report how the crime was committed.
Other signs indicate that high-ranking Venezuelan officers could be profiting from the country’s artificially low domestic price for gasoline, which the government keeps at $0.01 per liter. Illegally selling gasoline abroad -- to Brazil, Colombia, and the Caribbean countries -- and charging international prices would yield hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Such contraband gasoline sales may well be as high as 150,000 barrels per day, according to Rafael Ramírez, former minister of petroleum and mining.
Maduro, like Chávez before him, has brushed aside such allegations and done nothing to curtail the military’s growing clout. Simply put, he fears the loss of the army’s backing, which would be a blow he would not likely survive. Four months of protests earlier this year, coupled with the government’s heavy-handed repression, economic hardship, and soaring crime, have tanked his popularity. According to the most recent survey by Datanalisis, a leading pollster, Maduro’s approval rating stood at just 35 percent in July, and a majority thought that he should step down rather than serve out his term until 2019.
Maduro, who styles himself “a son of Chávez,” has fallen short of his predecessor in several critical ways. His speeches are wooden and often packed with gaffes; he once claimed that the ghost of Chávez had visited him as a bird to chirp advice. He is also incapable of mustering the level of street support that once buoyed Chávez and of reconciling the different factions within his ruling United Socialist Party. Further, although Maduro has repeatedly promised reforms since assuming power in March 2013, he has failed to take decisive steps. Instead, he has floated various trial balloons and then withdrawn them at the first sign of any opposition.
Venezuela’s economy, meanwhile, has suffered. The inflation rate, at more than 60 percent a year, is the world’s highest. The currency is practically worthless outside Venezuela, and crime is soaring. Consumers face widespread shortages of basic food staples, including cheese, coffee, cooking oil, flour, cornmeal, meat, milk, and sugar. Rumors that a nearby store has received a delivery of daily necessities such as detergent, diapers, hand soap, or toilet paper produce long lines of desperate shoppers.
How long this tenuous equilibrium will last depends in large part on the military’s willingness to shore up the government. For the moment, Maduro and the army’s top brass need each other to survive. If Maduro falls, numerous senior military officials could find themselves under investigation -- something they would work hard to avoid. And if the military goes back to the barracks, the already weakened Maduro may see his presidency swept away by a fresh wave of street protests. So, for now, Maduro will likely allow the military to continue expanding its control of Venezuela’s government in return for their support. But if the opposition wins the congressional elections in 2015, all bets will be off, and the military may have no choice but to abandon the president or take control. Either outcome stands likely to plunge the country further into turmoil.