All eyes on Venezuela military after protests, vote

By Girish Gupta and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers are increasingly weary of the popular backlash against their role in quelling anti-government protests and all eyes are on the military to see if it will remain loyal to President Nicolas Maduro.

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.

‘CONTEMPT OF THE POPULATION’

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…

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