Venezuela's Rank-and-File Soldiers Have Been Deserting in Droves

(Bloomberg) -- Even before the U.S.-backed leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly called on the military to abandon President Nicolas Maduro, the government was trying to stop a surge of desertions and ordered border guards to stop soldiers trying to leave the country without permission.

Two documents illustrate the erosion of the armed forces. One lists about 4,300 national-guard officers who deserted since 2014, giving their ranks and serial numbers. Signed by the guard’s commander, Major General Jesus Lopez Vargas, the Dec. 21 order removes them from rolls. All are non-commissioned officers or enlisted men and women and represented about 6 percent of the guard.

The second, dated Nov. 13, is signed by Luis Santiago Rodriguez Gonzalez, director of the country’s immigration service. It orders personnel at entry and exit points to prevent members of the military and retirees on reserve duty from going abroad without specific authorization.

Current and former members of the military familiar with official papers examined the documents and said they are authentic. Spokesmen from Venezuela’s defense ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment on the desertions or restrictions on soldiers’ travel.

The armed forces are Venezuela’s most powerful institution, and a battle for their loyalty is afoot since last year’s disputed election. Maduro’s socialist autocracy has cultivated military chiefs, handing them top government posts and lucrative businesses -- both legal and illicit. In the past eight years, some 1,300 officers have been promoted to the rank of general or admiral, according watchdog group Control Ciudadano. The U.S. says Maduro’s regime turns a blind eye to money laundering, fraud, illegal mining and drug-trafficking schemes conducted by soldiers and officers.

Slipping Away

His rival, National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, has promised defectors amnesty, an offer that so far has only been accepted publicly by a fraction of the thousands of top officers. One general and one colonel have broken ranks in the past two weeks. But the documents reveal how endemic poverty and dysfunction are eroding the rank-and-file forces

Venezuela’s military comprises four branches: army, navy, air force and national guard, which handles domestic tasks such as manning checkpoints and crowd control. Additionally, late President Hugo Chavez created a civilian militia after he was briefly deposed by a failed military coup in 2002. Chavez, an army officer, put that branch in control of key equipment and arsenals, and surrounded himself with his former comrades.

The national guard has been a favorite of Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister who never served in the military. During his six years in office, he has built up its numbers and materiel, increasing its ranks beyond any other branch.

Internal Control

“Maduro elevated the national guard for political reasons, because his problems are internal, not external,” said Cliver Alcala, a retired army general who broke with Maduro and now lives in exile in Colombia. “The national guard became a repressive force used to contain protests and maintain public order.”

Venezuela's Rank-and-File Soldiers Have Been Deserting in Droves

After 2014, when anti-government unrest rocked Venezuela, a guard recruit’s basic training was slashed from two years to six months -- or even three, according to Control Ciudadano. In 2016, its then-commander announced that the force stood at 70,000 men and women, meaning the desertions would amount to a 6 percent rate. This is apart from retirements and disciplinary removals.

That loss reflects growing discontent. Maduro has worked hard to insulate top brass from hardship, and the government has moved against some dissenting troops, whom it has accused of conspiracy. According to the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, a Caracas legal group, 163 members of the military are behind bars for political reasons.

Free Pass

“There is fear in the barracks as Maduro’s government has been threatening and targeting the military,” Guaido said in response to emailed questions. “Officials have been forced to record videos swearing allegiance for Maduro. All those who are refusing to do so have been targeted with violence by their superiors. This is yet another desperate measure of a regime that knows it has lost.”

Since taking the reins of the legislature last month, Guaido has introduced a bill offering forgiveness for human-rights abuses and corruption to soldiers who defect. He is now calling on the armed forces to allow humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela; Maduro says the shipments are the precursor to a U.S.-backed coup and he vows to block them.

Military Franchises

Guaido had hoped that calling on the military command to follow him and accept amnesty from prosecution would sway loyalties in large numbers. So far, that hasn’t happened. (At least, not publicly. Guaido contends that in private many officers are negotiating with his team.)

The strength and loyalty of the national guard appear to concern Maduro. Harold Trinkunas, an expert on Venezuela at Stanford University in California, says the guard is more exposed to unrest and economic hardship than other branches.

“They have to get their hands dirty in terms of repression,” he said. “But the problem now is the economy, and protests are harder to manage.”

Venezuela's Rank-and-File Soldiers Have Been Deserting in Droves

Last month, two dozen guardsmen raided Caracas military outposts, stealing weapons and holding other soldiers captive before gathering in a fort near the city center. Videos posted on social media show guardsmen arguing with hostages about turning against Maduro while others called on civilians to rise up.

The revolt was swiftly put down.

In another sign of official concern about the state of the guard, Maduro announced Saturday that 30,000 men and women in the separate civilian militia would be incorporated into the branch. Many of those volunteers, however, appear to be elderly and frail.

“Venezuela doesn’t surrender,” Maduro said. “Venezuela charges forward.”

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