Pressure Grows on Military as Venezuela’s Governing Crisis Worsens

By Mark Browne | June 8, 2017 | 11:47pm EDT
Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolas Maduro. (Photo: Venezuelan Presidency)

Mexico City ( – Analysts point to increased pressure on Venezuela’s military and a growing rift between President Nicolas Maduro and his chief prosecutor as new challenges confronting the president as he tries to centralize his power amid worsening street protests and violence.

They say while the ability of Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors to influence Maduro’s decisions is very limited, U.S. sanctions on the state-owned oil industry could represent the most leverage any outside power could have.

“The situation is spiraling out of control,” said Michael McCarthy, a research fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

In a recent blog post, McCarthy wrote that Maduro was in “raw survival mode,” and his attempt to rewrite the nation’s constitution constituted a move “toward outright dictatorship.”

“I don’t think Venezuelan politics has ever been as uncertain as they are today,” McCarthy said in an interview.

“Any process that Maduro tries to roll out in terms of centralizing his authority is going to take some give-and-take and negotiation with the military.”

Pointing to recent reports that the government’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, has called on the Supreme Court to reject a re-write of the constitution, McCarthy said her loyalty to the Maduro regime is now in question.

But it’s unclear whether her intention is to lend legitimacy to the Maduro’s opponents, pursue her own political ambitions, or make a statement of conscience, McCarthy said.

“She’s been the true celebrity of this 70-day long political rebellion,” he commented.

“There is definitely a confrontation within the government, but we have to see how this plays out in the coming months,” said Reggie Thompson, a Latin America Analyst with the private security consultancy Stratfor.

Ortega Diaz was appointed by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and she has the allegiance of retired military personnel, Thompson noted.

There are signs the military is growing uncomfortable with the government’s response to the street protests.

Thompson said there’s no open confrontation between Maduro and the defense minister but unquestioning support by the military for the government is in doubt.

He pointed to a reported call by Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez for the national guard to stop committing atrocities against protestors.

“The defense minister is trying to tone down the use of force against protestors,” Thompson said.

“It could be he is afraid the violence is going to escalate and attract the interest of the international community which would result in sanctions by the U.S. for human rights violations.”

What Maduro’s government fears most is the imposition of U.S. sanctions on the state-controlled oil industry, since oil is the government’s “only source of revenue,” according to Thompson.

International organizations with influence over events in Venezuela are few, he said, noting that countries other than the U.S. have not proven capable of driving the situation to a resolution.

“The trouble with the Venezuelan crisis is that it never gets the attention it deserves,” said Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“I am very pessimistic about Latin American countries using their influence on Venezuela.”

Brazil and Colombia are distracted by internal political turmoil of their own, said Gonzalez, while Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has “seen an ability to do himself some good” by criticizing the actions of the Maduro government.

Peña Nieto’s administration has publicly expressed its disapproval of the cancellation of elections, the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and the attempt to re-write the constitution.

“If Mexico was experiencing a similar situation of pain and difficulty as is happening in Venezuela, it would be inexplicable to Mexicans if the international community remained silent,” the foreign relations secretariat said in a recent statement.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray told a gathering in Miami last month after an extraordinary session of the Organization of American States discussed the crisis, that Venezuela has ceased to be a functioning democracy.

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