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Growing Alliance With Venezuela's Armed Forces Has Let President Maduro Stay In Power


Much of Venezuela's population has turned against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro. He has cracked down on democratic freedoms and the country is in a severe economic crisis. Despite that, he remains firmly in power. John Otis reports that a growing alliance with the military is a big reason why.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In picking a new head for Venezuela's vital state oil company, which brings in 95 percent of the country's export earnings, President Maduro came up with a seemingly odd choice.


NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Maduro announced last month that Manuel Quevedo, a National Guard general, would be the new boss at the oil company, which is known as PDVSA. Quevedo has zero experience in the oil sector, but analysts say he won Maduro's admiration for helping to crush antigovernment protests in 2014. With Quevedo's appointment, active duty or retired military officers make up about half of Maduro's Cabinet and hold many other key posts. They are in charge of everything, from arms procurement to steel production to food distribution.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The military even runs its own public TV station, with news and entertainment programs. The swelling presence of camouflage-clad officers, coupled with Maduro's authoritarian style, have prompted critics to label his government a military regime. But Vladimir Padrino Lopez, an army general who is Maduro's defense minister, says that's not the case.



OTIS: In a speech to troops earlier this year, Padrino Lopez described a civic military union. This partnership between civilian and military officials was promoted by the late Hugo Chavez, a former army paratrooper who launched Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999. The bonds have deepened under Maduro. That's mainly to ensure the loyalty of the officer corps and prevent coups amid Venezuela's worst economic meltdown in recent history, says Phil Gunson, who's based in Caracas for the international Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: Maduro clearly needs the military to stay in power. If the military turned against him, he'll be out of power tomorrow.

OTIS: Maria Corina Machado, who heads a right-wing opposition party, points out that, like average folks, troops and mid-level officers suffer from hyperinflation, the collapse of Venezuela's currency and shortages of food and medicine.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: And I've had many experiences traveling around my country of officials reaching out to me and saying, we do not support what's going on in the country. We realize this is a disaster that has to be stopped.

OTIS: In fact, during another round of street demonstrations this year, protesters urged the military to switch sides and help them oust Maduro. Instead, the armed forces crushed the protest movement. Gunson says that the top brass has gained so much control over the economy that it has a strong incentive to keep Maduro in power.

GUNSON: Maduro for them is a good frontman, and he makes life good for them. If you're a general and you play by the rules, then you can make a lot of money. Now they have perhaps the biggest prize of all, which is PDVSA.

OTIS: But Venezuela has paid a huge price, says Rafael Uzcategui who directs the Caracas human rights group PROVEA. He claims that Maduro's socialist policies, put in place by inept and sometimes corrupt military officers, have resulted in plunging national production and shortages of everything from milk to construction supplies.

RAFAEL UZCATEGUI: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: For Maduro, "loyalty is more important than competence," Uzcategui says, "and that's one of the reasons why we are in the middle of an economic crisis." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.