As Venezuela's Crisis Deepens, Opponents Call For Removal Of Nicolas Maduro
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The crisis in Venezuela is getting worse. Opposition leaders are calling on the army to stop supporting Nicolas Maduro, the increasingly autocratic leftist president. They're circulating unconfirmed reports that several dozen military officers are under arrest for dissent. NPR's Philip Reeves has this report.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Maduro's opponents are paying a high price in their campaign to drive him from power. Dozens have been killed and many hundreds injured during a wave of protests that began last month. Yet there's no sign these are losing momentum.
MARIA CORINA MACHADO: What's different today is that we are conscious as a nation, that we are at the border line of collapse.
REEVES: Maria Corina Machado is one of Venezuela's opposition leaders.
MACHADO: From within the regime, we see the different groups confronting each other.
REEVES: Protests alone, though, may not be enough. Observers of Venezuela's crisis believe it's likely Maduro's fate will ultimately be decided by the army.
PHIL GUNSON: Right now I'd say this very weak government is utterly dependent on the military. If the army stop obeying orders, then the government I think would fall quite fast.
REEVES: Phil Gunson is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group and specializes in Venezuela. He says over the years, Maduro's been shoring up support among the military's top brass.
GUNSON: He's named hundreds of new generals. The number of generals in the Venezuelan armed forces, if I remember correctly, is in the region of about 2,000 now, which is very - well, it's well over twice what I think the U.S. armed forces have.
REEVES: Venezuela's generals have much at stake. Current and former army officers hold top government positions. The military has lucrative business interests, including control over food distribution. Gunson again.
GUNSON: The generals in the army, the armed forces in - collectively have been given enormous powers over the economy. They've been allowed to get involved in mining, in the oil industry. There's an army bank.
REEVES: The bulk of these privileges go to the senior ranks.
GUNSON: That's not the case with most mid-ranking officers who are suffering. And their families are suffering the same sorts of deprivation that the bulk of the population is suffering.
REEVES: The middle ranks could therefore be the area to watch for signs of dissent. So far, the army seems to have been standing by Maduro. It's not been asked to play a large part in suppressing the street protests. That's done by the National Guard and the police. Some Venezuelans believe if the army is eventually called in, its loyalty could be seriously challenged. Maduro has been losing support in other key areas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CHEERING)
REEVES: At a recent rally in a traditionally pro-government area, Maduro was shown briefly on TV being pelted by members of the crowd.
MICHAEL MCCARTHY: I don't think that Maduro is confident that he could walk down a street in Venezuela without being pelted with eggs again. So I think we have a real crisis of leadership here and that that may also be one of the triggers here for a collapse.
REEVES: Professor Michael McCarthy's a Latin America specialist at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. McCarthy says that although the army's role is hugely important, Maduro's fate doesn't necessarily lie in military hands.
MCCARTHY: You could certainly imagine a scenario in which another blunder takes place and other members of the ruling coalition look at each other and say, this guy is putting our future at risk, and we need to make a change. And that can't wait.
JEAN CARLOS NIEVES: Fifteen, 16...
REEVES: Sixteen pictures of Hugo Chavez, one on the door alongside a picture of...
Jean Carlos Nieves shows NPR around his government-run community center in one of the poorer parts of West Caracas. Nieves says the neighborhood is a heartland of support for Maduro.
NIEVES: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: "We support the government because it supports the poor," he says. Step outside, though, and it's easy to find people who disagree. Jose Hernandez's pension is now almost worthless because the currency's collapsed. He says he used to be middle class. Now he's almost entirely dependent on food he grows himself. Hernandez makes no secret of how much he blames Maduro for this.
JOSE HERNANDEZ: Mucho, mucho, mucho.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "THE MINING DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.