Guns and Oil: The Kingmakers of Venezuela

By: Derrick Gozal

Much of recent news concerning Venezuela seems to focus on the increasing centralization of power around its president, Nicolas Maduro. There is a palpable sense that power is trickling down from the country’s democratic institutions to Maduro himself. Allegations of voter fraud on Maduro’s part after the ruling Socialist Party’s surprise victory in the gubernatorial elections have only exacerbated this. To only focus on Maduro, however, is to ignore another vital player in Venezuelan politics: the army. Indeed, closer examination reveals that the Venezuelan political arena is less of a one-man show and more of a power dynamic between Maduro and the army. To understand the nature of the army in Venezuela, we must first turn to its rather recent history.

Prior to 1958, one of the most common ways in which a transfer of governments would occur in Venezuela was through a military coup. When democracy was established in 1958, there was some expectation that this bloody trend would finally come to an end. It did not. While mostly unsuccessful, military coups remained a constant feature of the political landscape. In any case, these events highlight the fact that the Venezuelan army was not some wartime entity distinct from civilian governance but an active participator in politics. This is crucial to understanding the Venezuelan army and would set the stage for its involvement in the Bolivarian Movement.

In a foreshadowing of its current predicament, falling oil prices in the 1980s hamstrung Venezuela’s economy. One of the system’s hallmarks is that it is almost entirely oil-driven; many private industries are propped up by oil-funded subsidies, and the public sector is almost entirely financed by oil. Whenever oil revenues dried up, the entire economic arrangement unraveled rapidly. This unraveling, accompanied by increasing corruption and public unrest, occurred in both the 1980s and then later in 2014. It was against this backdrop of public unrest that the Bolivarian Movement began to gain traction. Combining elements of socialism, nationalism, and opposition to the current regime, the Bolivarian Movement was exceptionally popular and swept Hugo Chavez into power in 1992. Another important key to Chavez’s victory, however, was the army. Indeed, Chavez himself was only able to weather a coup attempt in 2002 due to his personal popularity and the army’s backing. Most crucial, however, was the revitalization of the army’s role in politics. In a break from previous regimes, Chavez envisioned the army as a key force in national development. Motivated by both this ideology and his experience with the 2002 coup, Chavez reinserted the army into politics, blurring the lines between civil and military servants. Many public administrative roles formerly reserved for civilians were opened up to the military leadership. The goal was to create, in Chavez’s own words, a “civil-military alliance.” In accordance with this, Chavez quickly put the army to work, using them as the main instrument to implement his extensive social welfare policies across the country. The army, never completely exiting the political sphere, was now forcefully reinserted into politics, and it was this system that Maduro would inherit.

Fast forward to today, and Chavez’s legacy continues to influence the workings of Venezuelan society. In an echo of the 1980s, Venezuela is currently mired in an economic crisis directly triggered by plummeting oil prices in 2014. It was amidst these crises that Maduro began taking initiatives that would concentrate power to himself. Just as important was Maduro’s decision to give the army control over the nation’s distribution networks. As Antonio Rivero, an exiled Venezuelan general, puts it, “…they gave absolute control to the military. That drained the feeling of rebellion from the armed forces and allowed them to feed their families.” The army’s control over distribution networks opened the floodgates to a frenzy of money-making as the army’s monopoly allowed them to charge exorbitant prices for the sale of basic commodities to the desperate populace. One also shouldn’t forget that when Maduro created a new legislative body staffed by his own party members, a substantial amount of these people were military officials. It is not a stretch to think that Maduro’s granting of political and economic influence to the military was a deliberate move to secure their loyalty and insulate himself from any risks of a coup. Maduro lacked two things that greatly advantaged Chavez: charisma and a military background. Maduro’s civilian background also meant that the army’s loyalty to Chavez, a former soldier, would not necessarily extend to Maduro. His lack of charisma also meant that he was never able to attain the level of popularity which Chavez enjoyed. Faced with a crumbling economy and plummeting popular support, it was only reasonable for Maduro to first secure the military’s allegiance. In any case, these instances clearly indicate that Maduro, far from being an absolutist ruler, is in fact quite dependent on army support. Furthermore, the army’s control over the nation’s distribution networks will likely serve to increase their influence.

Unhindered by any history or ideology of political abstention and re-inserted into the social and political sphere by Chavez’s reforms, the Venezuelan army represents a formidable political force that one shouldn’t discount. The classic portrait of the absolutist dictatorship is of a government which has outsized control of every aspect of the state, and the established role of the army makes it difficult to characterize Maduro’s regime as such. What one sees instead is a political balancing act. On one hand, Maduro is constantly struggling to maintain the military’s loyalty amidst dismal public support. On the other hand, the army, with its control over the national distribution system and its potential for wealth, has much to lose if Maduro is removed from power. And so, to all observing the events unfolding in Venezuela: watch Maduro closely, but never lose sight of those holding a gun to his head.

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