These are really confusing times for Venezuela watchers. The last time the country faced instability on this scale was probably the Federal War, 170 years ago. Venezuela has the feeling of a powder keg right now — the feeling is pervasive that something really has to give, and soon.

As observers we have a crisp understanding of the poisonous dynamics between the political opposition and the radical civilian leftists who run the government. That’s the struggle that gets reported, photographed, talked about, picked over and analyzed to death. But there’s a third actor here, deeply powerful but largely muzzled, that we just don’t understand well enough to put into the analytical mix.  

I’m talking about the Armed Forces. Widely expected to be the final arbiter, the men in green fatigues are alternatively admired, loathed, entreated, insulted, mythologized and puputoved. Until we get our heads straight on who the Armed Forces really are and what role they play in the current crisis, we’re going to be in analytical limbo: you can’t really grasp this crisis if one of its prime movers is a black box.

So let’s have at it.

The Dawn of Unión Cívico-Militar

The coalition Hugo Chávez put together was a bit of a strange beast. Chávez liked to describe it as “la unión cívico-militar” — a phrase that masked, through relentless repetition, the obvious contradiction at its core.

The Venezuelan military Chávez was trained to serve was, for the most part, a product of the anti-communist consensus of puntofijista Venezuela. The types of people who went into the Military Academy and trained as officers in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s were the kind of people you’d expect — relatively conservative young men enamored of guns and hierarchy. About the only action they ever saw was hunting down little bands of communist no-hopers sent by Cuba to start guevarista focos revolucionarios on the sierras of Falcón and Sucre states. The institution was steeped in anti-communism, and the kinds of people who joined it were anti-communists.

Unión Cívico-Militar is the name Chávez gave to a harebrained scheme to graft that Armed Force onto a radical leftist revolutionary movement run by civilians whose entire worldview was crafted in Cuba.

And it was very much the same institution because, save for a few exceptions arising from the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez never really purged the old Armed Forces. The men (and a few women) who were promoted to the rank of Division General this year and have received top command posts at the nation’s powerful Regional Strategic Defense Commands (REDIs) graduated from the Military Academy in 1987. This means they went into the academy as teenagers in 1982. Now how many leftist 17 year olds were really going for a military career in 1982?

We know the answer isn’t zero —one Diosdado Cabello was in that bunch— but you can bet it isn’t many.

So how did Chávez, first, and then Maduro pull off this Unión Cívico-Militar conjuring trick?

The answer, overwhelmingly, is money and privilege.

Chávez started seeding military men in high-ranking state positions that afforded ample opportunities for corruption literally from the first month he was in power. He looked assiduously the other way as military men trafficked tons of Colombian cocaine through the country, keeping a healthy cut. He ensured military pay rises always outstripped those of civilians. The deal under Chávez was simple: follow the orders, mouth the slogans, and I’m gonna make it rain.

Soldiers didn’t need to repress protests, because nobody protests in the middle of a consumption boom.

For two long decades this was the game: the officers who were most loyal —or, and this is crucial, who most successfully simulated loyalty— were richly rewarded with promotions and opportunities for graft. Those who didn’t, lagged behind.

Unión Cívico-Militar operated, on the ground, as an enormous co-optation mechanism — corrupting the military and ensuring its obedience were one and the same thing.

And for a while, it worked.

As long as the 2004-2014 oil boom lasted, a whole lot of contradictions could just be papered over with hundred dollar bills. Soldiers didn’t need to repress protests, because nobody protests in the middle of a consumption boom. They got to tell themselves they were proudly protecting a constitutional, democratic government. They got to preserve the fiction of being above and outside the political fray.

The lynchpin of Unión Cívico-Militar was Chávez himself. In his person, Chávez incarnated both sides of the equation: he was both a military man through-and-through and a pro-Cuban Marxist radical through-and-through.

The person of Hugo Chávez —his authority, his charisma, his unique mix of identities— reassured both parties to the deal that a semblance of balance would be kept. Chávez calmed fears that one side might try to dominate the other, and that was the key to ensuring its stability.

And then Chávez died.

Maduro’s Approach

The rise to power of Nicolás Maduro was always going to test the governing coalition Chávez put together. A pro-Cuban civilian radical who came up through the ranks of the fringy, pro-Cuban Liga Socialista, Maduro had no military background. As such, he was always going to struggle a bit with the men in green fatigues.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014 added the second key source of stress, as more and more army guys went after fewer and fewer opportunities for personal enrichment, amid worse and worse conditions for junior officers and the enlisted men. You know all is not well when stories start circulating about not enough food in the barracks and videos start making the rounds showing soldiers rooting around the garbage for food.

The basic Chávez-era geometry was straightforward: civilian leftists and the military were to be equal partners.

Maduro hasn’t really managed to insulate the Armed Forces from the general collapse he has set off.  That’s one key reason why tensions and discontent within the Armed Forces has been rising for some time now. But it takes more than that to open up a critical rift between the soldiers and the civilian leadership.

To do that, you’d have to do something much more reckless: you have to threaten their position as equal partners in the Cívico-Militar equation.

The basic Chávez-era geometry was straightforward: civilian leftists and the military were to be equal partners. Neither side would try to run the other out of town. But the moment one side begins to worry that this basic symmetry is under threat, the logic of preemption takes hold and the system becomes very unstable indeed.

Now, Maduro’s four years in power have given the military plenty to worry about. Sure, lots of military men still occupy high positions of state, but more and more real power is in the hands of civilian leftists. And these are not your garden variety civilians leftists.

From the very beginning of his presidency Maduro purged and sidelined most of the old leftists that hopped in the Chavéz bandwagon in the late nineties. These are, by the most part, the ideologues whose claim to power arose mostly out of their personal bond with Chávez: the Giordanis, Navarros and Ana Elisa Osorios, who always held important positions in the cabinet. They were replaced, on the civilian side of the equation, by and large, with a younger generation of radical leftists who understand politics through the Cuban lense.

Key here is the heavily Cuban-tinged Frente Francisco de Miranda (FFM), the nationwide network of tens of thousands of civilian political activists that has come to serve as Maduro’s go-to organization within the ruling party. As the FFM is empowered, as figures close to FFM take on positions of more and more power, the basic power symmetry suggested in Unión Cívico-Militar comes under greater and greater strain.

And then, Maduro made a move that threatened to dynamite the entire arrangement.

The Constituyente as Detonator

On May 1st, Nicolás Maduro called for a Constituent Assembly to govern the country singlehandedly while it redrafts Venezuela’s constitution. The plainly illegal call has led to a volley of international condemnation and street protests. Lost amid the hubbub is the reaction within the Armed Forces, where the constituyente can only be felt as a clear and present threat.

Why? Because Maduro has scoured the membership lists of the Frente Francisco de Miranda for Constituyente candidates. This implies that total supra-constitutional authority will be vested on just one of the two sides of the Unión Cívico-Militar equation, and it ain’t the military side.

But also because the Constituyente threatens to further inflame political protest on the streets, threatening to draw the military more and more directly into front-line management of political conflict. This is something we tend to overlook: through its first 113 days, the protest movement of 2017 has been repressed almost entirely by civilian Police and the National Guard, with other service branches kept resolutely in their barracks. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force have been spectators to the bloodletting, not participants. And they are deeply institutionally averse to getting involved in the melée directly.

The military will be left to deal with a huge fire, while the government keeps throwing gasoline on it

For this reason, the Army brass has been a consistent voice urging the civilian authorities to de-escalate, stretching back to the Referendum Revocatorio fight of last year. Again and again they’ve urged the civilian leadership to adopt a cautious, conflict avoiding stance towards the crisis, to de-escalate and seek arrangements to stabilize the country without them having to get directly involved. Again and again they’ve been rebuffed, ignored and —in the eyes of some— just plain humiliated.

And they know, from recent experience, that when as conflict intensifies both before and after July 30th, they won’t be able to count on the government to dial it down a notch: the whole purpose of the Constituyente is to radicalize the revolution and to stomp on the opposition. The military will be left to deal with a huge fire, while the government keeps throwing gasoline on it.

Maduro’s Choice

The choice facing Maduro in the next few days is stark. To go ahead with a constituent assembly is to threaten the basic power architecture of the chavista state. Amid chronic instability on the street, Maduro needs the loyalty of the Armed Forces more than ever — but his strategy for quashing those protests, involve drafting an armed institution created to hunt down pro-Cuban radical leftists to crack the skulls of people mobilizing against giving total power over everything to a group of pro-Cuban radical leftists.

On the other hand, cancelling the Constituyente would mean throwing the Frente Francisco de Miranda troglodytes —increasingly Maduro’s real base— under the bus. These guys have fully bought into the idea that they are now a week away from their lifelong dream: total control of the state, carte blanche to annihilate the ‘fascist right wing opposition’. Telling them it was all a bluff this late in the game would be like cancelling Christmas on December 22nd.

Whether he realizes it or not, the bigger problem Nicolás Maduro faces right now is not the opposition: it’s that he now risks an outright break with the one institution whose support he absolutely cannot do without.

Short of money, short of food, short of respect and feeling absolutely neglected, much of the Armed Forces is in no mood right now to go cracking skulls and violating human rights just to preserve the power of a government that isn’t minded to respect the basic rules of Union Cívico-Militar powersharing. Nor does getting past July 30th really solve this problem for him: with every new controversial decision, every move that empowers radicals and mobilizes dissent, he’ll be pouring salt on the military wound.

The real threat for Maduro now comes from them, not us.

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