CARACAS, (Reuters) – A teenage protester reads the constitution to Venezuelan soldiers blocking a march. Others scrawl slogans on riot shields. Some shout “thugs” and urge troops to think of their families after tear gas is fired to quell the crowd.
Amid the melee on the front line of the latest protest in Caracas, the young soldiers’ faces remain impassive.
Venezuela’s opaque but powerful military – a key power-broker in past unrest – is under increasing scrutiny as socialist President Nicolas Maduro squares off with an opposition coalition desperate for his departure amid a brutal economic crisis.
With authorities looking unlikely to allow a referendum to recall Maduro this year, some opposition supporters are hoping factions of the armed forces may manoeuvre behind the scenes to promote a vote and avoid social unrest.
There is, however, no outward sign of dissent in the military, which late leader Hugo Chavez, a lieutenant colonel, turned into a bastion of “Chavismo” after a short-lived putsch in 2002. Though his successor Maduro, 53, does not hail from the army, he has worked to keep those ties strong.
The president frequently appears at parades lavishly praising the military, has placed current or former members of the armed forces in about a third of ministerial posts, and even created an army-run oil services company this year.
But as anger over worsening food shortages, power cuts and rampant inflation threatens to spill into mass unrest unless a political solution is found, the opposition are calling out to the army.
“I want to tell the armed forces that the hour of truth is coming,” opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said this week. “You must decide whether you’re with the constitution or Maduro,” added Capriles, who has said the opposition has high-placed allies in the army, without clarifying exactly what he wants them to do.
During an economic crisis in 1992, a young soldier frustrated with what he deemed elitist and corrupt leaders plotted from the barracks to stage a coup.
The soldier, Chavez, ultimately failed and spent two years in jail, but the incident propelled him to fame and he was elected president in 1998. Four years later, he was himself victim of a 48-hour coup in which some army commanders pressured for his resignation and then another group reinstated him.
Once back in Miraflores palace, he purged the military and its top brass appears fiercely loyal to his self-described “son” Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver elected in 2013 after Chavez died of cancer.
Volatile Venezuela’s history of coups mean rumours always abound on its buzzing social media scene.
The roughly 140,000-strong armed forces’ current leader, General Vladimir Padrino, doubles as defence minister and sees his mission as protecting the “socialist fatherland.” The forces were holding military exercises on Friday and Saturday against what Maduro says are threats of a foreign invasion.
In a recent speech praising Chavez, Padrino said those seeking Maduro’s ouster were aiming to break the socialist revolution and to “re-implement a neo-liberal model”.
The Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Padrino and the rest of the top brass could be at risk if there is a successful recall referendum this year, as that would trigger a presidential election Maduro would almost certainly lose.
The opposition frequently accuses the military of being the corrupt, violent arm of a dictatorship – sweetened by lucrative business deals – and if in power would likely overhaul it.
In addition, U.S. prosecutors have unsealed indictments charging at least five former Venezuelan officials with drug trafficking crimes over the past four years and suspect the armed forces are involved in the cocaine trade. Venezuela has rejected the accusations as part of an imperialist plot to sabotage leftism in Latin America and has touted its success in cracking down on cocaine flows from neighboring Colombia.
While there are no public cracks in military support for Maduro, one former army commander who participated in the 1992 coup and still considers himself “Chavista” caused waves this week when he backed the recall referendum.
“‘Chavismo’ has to continue and prevail. But we have to prevail by doing things right. The recall referendum is an exit to this crisis,” Cliver Alcala told TV channel Globovision, complaining of corruption and mismanagement in the military.
That might resonate in the barracks, where young soldiers are drafted in from poor provinces to keep order at hot, unruly lines for food or at sometimes-violent protests.
The bolivar currency’s near-collapse on the black market has them earning just $25 a month. Local media reported that five soldiers stole a goat in Lara state earlier this month because they had run out of food at their base.
“They come and repress us when in their homes they’re suffering too,” said Maria Olivares, 28, an education student at a protest in Caracas on Wednesday, after a hefty National Guard and police contingent tear-gassed demonstrators.
Protesters threw stones, shouted at the guards to let them through, and taunted them as “submissive public servants.” Two soldiers declined to respond to questions from a Reuters reporter, raising their shields to cover their faces.
“They’re going to open their eyes at some point and come over to our side,” said Olivares, whose grandmother and sister were waiting in a food line because the family only had oatmeal left at home.