When Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reshuffled duties in his deeply embattled government earlier this week, it wasn’t the changes at the top of the transport and fishing ministries that caused a buzz.
Instead, it was the sacking of the heads of several branches of the military, in particular the general overseeing the National Guard, that drew widespread attention.
That, plus Mr. Maduro’s pointed announcement that he was retaining his defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino López, whom he described as a “loyal man.”
The unpopular president’s actions and words this week underscore just how dependent he has become on the country’s military, after more than two years of putting a growing number of generals in charge of everything from food distribution to new oil and mining projects.
But they also suggest an awareness on his part that a military with much higher popular support than his own could one day engineer his downfall. Some regional experts suggest that factions of the military could act to topple the leftist-populist Maduro and return the Venezuelan military to its more traditional role, as a guardian of Venezuela’s democracy.
“It’s not generally in the Venezuelan military’s ethos to want to seize power or to play the role of the go-to for the civilian political leadership,” says Brian Fonseca, an expert in international affairs and public policy at Florida International University in Miami. “But as the Venezuelan crisis deepens I think we could see a fracturing of the military,” he adds, “with some elements acting to force a political transition and ultimately return the military institution to its constitutional role.”
This week’s government reshuffle comes as protests against Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the country’s worsening food shortages turn ever more violent, with the death toll in recent weeks of protests reaching 74.