By Will Bisset
It has come as a surprise to many that Venezuela’s military, with its history of attempted coups d’etat, has sat idly by while its country descends into chaos.
Ostensibly, all the ingredients for the perfect coup are there: unprecedented shortages of basic goods such as food and medicine coupled with disastrous economic performance led to violent street protests over the summer, in which over 100 protestors were killed. The suffering population, 80% of whom have lost weight due to the ‘Maduro diet’, has been left further incensed by the growing waist-lines and wallets of the President and his cronies. All of this has contributed to the regime haemorrhaging legitimacy both domestically and internationally. If we consider that coups occur when a government faces a legitimacy crisis, it begs the question, why have the armed forces not stepped in for Latin America’s latest golpe del estado?
The depressing answer is that they are making too much money. Maduro, incompetent in so many ways, has launched a stunningly effective ‘coup proofing’ strategy. Lacking both the military pedigree and popular legitimacy of Chavez, it has been especially important to curry favour with the armed forces. Since coming to power, Maduro has identified them as a possible threat and extended patronage to buy their loyalty. Recently, this has come via access to profitable business opportunities and sanctioning involvement in illicit economies.
Business opportunities to buy loyalty
In July 2016 he handed power over food production and distribution, as well as jurisdiction of the ports, to the military. This gives soldiers a lucrative source of extra income, as well as ensuring their families are well fed. There is an unprecedented shortage of food in the country, and providing soldiers with a reliable source of food for their families should not be underestimated as a mechanism to buy loyalty.
Due to mis-management under Chavez, Venezuela imports almost all its food. During the importation and transportation processes, the armed forces are able to extract bribes. A recent Associated Press investigation quoted retired General Cliver Alcala explaining that the military was doing all that was necessary to ensure they got their ‘cut’ from such a profitable business. One South American businessman claims to have paid $8 million in bribes to those working for Food Minister General Rodolfo Marco Torres. Fortunately, for importers, the government overpays for food contracts, enabling them to pay officials these bribes. This particular businessman had a $52 million contract for yellow corn, charging more than double the market rate, with a profit of over $20 million. In this way the regime is using state resources to create this gravy train. Money that should be spent on public services is diverted instead for the armed forces’ profit. This removes any incentive to remove Maduro from power.
Further profits are generated selling food in military-run black markets. For example, Jose Campos, a grocer, has resorted to an illegal market to buy pallets of corn flour, priced at 100 times the government rate. This shows how members of the armed forces, of all ranks, directly profit from Maduro’s decision to allow them to control food distribution.
The figure appointed in September 2016 to ensure transparency and limit this endemic corruption in the military was General Carlos Osorio. Whilst Food Minister, he provided contracts to two shell companies with no history of importing food. The companies paid over $5.5 million into a Swiss account registered to Osorio’s two brothers-in-law. His appointment clearly indicates the regime’s complete disregard for fighting this corruption in food importation and distribution. In this way, Maduro is allowing corruption in exchange for political loyalty.
Sanctioned illegality in exchange for loyalty
General Alcala summarised the value of the food business: “Lately, food is a better business than drugs.”
Fortunately for the Venezuelan military, they do not have to make the difficult choice between the two. The mysterious ‘Cartel de los Soles’ or ‘Cartel of the Suns’ consists of numerous cells, permeating all ranks and branches of the Venezuelan armed forces. The name is a reference to the sun insignia worn on the uniforms of Venezuelan generals. Moreover, in September 2017, the Cartel de los Soles was publically accused of drug trafficking by the vice-president of Colombia. The United States has brought formal drug charges against numerous high-ranking members of the armed forces. In August 2016, US prosecutors unsealed a federal indictment against Nestor Reverol, the former head of the country’s anti-narcotics agency. Reverol was accused of ‘using his position of power [at the National Anti-Drug Organization] to enable drug trafficking organizations, all the while hindering law enforcement’s efforts to thwart them.’ In further stunning irony, he was promoted to Interior Minister the next day. This blatant protection and support is particularly instructive, in that Reverol is head of the National Guard. Which, less than 12 months later, was carrying out a brutal crackdown on protests against Maduro.
To be clear, the militarisation of the Venezuelan cocaine trade was not the brainchild of Maduro, and has likely been a gradual process over the last decade. However, it is evident why no senior military figures have been punished by the regime. Access to the drug trade is immensely profitable and enough to buy loyalty from generals that would otherwise be a threat to Maduro. The implication of Reverol’s promotion is clear: criminal activity is sanctioned by the state in exchange for political loyalty. Occasional arrests of low ranking soldiers are pure theatre; no important figures are ever threatened.
Maduro has constructed a situation in which it would be irrational for the armed forces to launch a coup. He has sanctioned kleptocratic conduct, endemic corruption, and illegality to cling on to power— and it has worked. As for the military, they are content to enrich themselves at the expense of the starving population by any means necessary. For as long as the President can extend benefits to the armed forces, there will be no coup d’état.
Will is a postgraduate student reading International Peace and Security at King’s. He has a degree in History and Politics from Newcastle University and is working as a political consultant. He has a broad interest in international security issues, with a specific interest in trans-national organised crime. You can follow him on @Bil93Bis