With many touting the recent vote for a Constitutional Assembly as rigged, Venezuelan soldiers are increasingly stuck in the middle between the regime of President Nicolas Maduro and the people. With government protests and rioting a constant threat, the military is growing weary of the backlash against their role in quelling these anti-government protests.
Now there are questions as to see if it will remain loyal to President Maduro. Maduro has already been purging the military of those he deems disloyal and there are those who wonder if the military will once again rebel and remove Maduro from power.
Nearly five months of demonstrations failed to stop Maduro carrying out a weekend vote for a Constitutional Assembly that opponents say will cement his dictatorship in the OPEC nation.
The opposition is now looking towards the military to see if it will turn against the government and pressure Maduro to enact its demands, which include presidential elections.
More than 120 people have been killed in the protests, drawing international condemnation of the security forces’ heavy-handed tactics.
In an unofficial referendum last month, the opposition asked Venezuelans whether the military should defend the current constitution and the National Assembly – which is expected to be dissolved by the Constitutional Assembly – in an apparent attempt to exert public pressure on the armed forces.
There are signs of fatigue and division among troops who face constant street confrontations that frequently include volleys of rocks, Molotov cocktails and even human excrement. Soldiers chafe under the negative public opinion of the security forces caused by the crackdown.
“If we do not defend the regime, we are traitors and our careers are ruined. If we defend the government, we become enemies of the people,” said a 40-year-old army sergeant major in the border city of San Cristobal with 18 years of service under his belt, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Protests appear poised to intensify after 10 people were killed in the weekend vote for the new legislative superbody expected to give the ruling Socialist Party sweeping powers.
Like many others in the once prosperous South American country, members of the security forces struggle to eat properly because they earn just a few dollars a month, which is barely enough for a week’s food.
Splits within the armed forces have been made evident since protests began with the detention of 123 members, including high-ranking officers, on charges ranging from treason and rebellion to theft and desertion.
“In the past, a soldier was respected but now, after this period of degeneration, a soldier gets the contempt of the whole population,” said a 33-year-old Air Force major, also asking his name not be revealed for fear of reprisal.
At least publicly, military leaders such as Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino remain firmly behind Maduro, appearing alongside him at near-daily political events and military parades.
The military has played a key role in government since former socialist leader Hugo Chavez – himself a former military officer – swept to power in 1999 promising to bring greater equality to the economy of the oil rich nation.
Venezuela was once South America’s most prosperous nation but failed policies of the Socialist government have thrust the nation into despair. And with people starving and many fleeing their borders, something has got to give.
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