Documents Reveal Venezuelan Soldiers Deserting, as Tensions Rise

February 7, 2019 Updated: February 8, 2019

Embattled Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro still has the backing of the military, despite new documents revealing that thousands of soldiers had deserted him in recent years as the regime struggled to temper the erosion of its armed forces.

Two documents obtained by Bloomberg highlight how Maduro’s regime was already attempting to stop a growing number of desertions even before U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó had called on the military to break from Maduro.

One document listed some 4,300 National Guard members who had abandoned their posts over the past five years. Signed by the Guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. Jesus Lopez Vargas on Dec. 21, the document orders the removal of their ranks and serial numbers from military rolls. All the names were non-commissioned officers or enlisted men and women.

The National Guard is just one of four main Venezuelan military branches, which include the army, navy and air force.

People protest during a rally against the government of Nicolás Maduro in the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 2, 2019. (Marco Bello/Getty Images)

The second document ordered personnel at entry and exit points to prevent soldiers and retirees on reserve duty from going abroad without authorization. The order was signed on Nov. 13 by Luis Santiago Rodriguez Gonzalez, the director of the country’s immigration service.

Though there have been mass protests in the streets across the country calling for Maduro to step down, mass defections from the military have not yet started. However, two high-ranking military officials recently broke with Maduro’s regime and recognized Guaidó, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s defense attache to Washington and a key military official, said he broke with Maduro’s regime on Jan. 26, while Gen. Francisco Yanez, a high-ranking Venezuelan air force general, also sided with Guaidó.

Weeks ago, Maduro’s regime claimed to have foiled an attempted military insurrection. In a statement, the country accused a “small group of assailants” from the Bolivarian National Guard of “betraying their oath of loyalty to the homeland” by kidnapping two officers and two National Guardsmen in an attempt to steal weapons in the early hours of Jan. 21. The government blamed the mutiny on “dark interests of the extreme right.”

Members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian militia demonstrate in support of President Nicolas Maduro at Bolivar Square in Caracas, on Feb. 4, 2019. (FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 amid worldwide condemnation that his leadership was illegitimate. He first gained power in the oil-rich nation in 2013 and is now in his second term.

Military Blockade

Efforts from the United States to send food and medical supplies to Colombia’s border with Venezuela were prevented after the Venezuelan military blockaded a major highway link on Feb. 6.

In response, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Maduro’s regime to let the supplies through.

“The Venezuelan people desperately need humanitarian aid,” he said on Twitter. “The U.S. & other countries are trying to help, but #Venezuela’s military under Maduro’s orders is blocking aid with trucks and shipping tankers. The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE.”

Truck trailers and shipping containers were placed to block the lanes of the Tienditas Bridge on Venezuela’s northwestern border with Colombia. And two shipping containers and a fuel tanker were used to block a three-lane border crossing from the Colombian town of Cucuta. Venezuelan soldiers stood guard and vowed to turn away any humanitarian aid.

Socialist policies introduced by Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have crippled the nation’s once-thriving economy. Almost 90 percent of Venezuela’s population live below the poverty line and over half of families are unable to meet basic food needs, according to the humanitarian group Mercy Corps. The UN estimates that by the end of 2019, there will be 5.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants.

Rising Tensions

A U.S. admiral, in the meantime, has said the U.S. military is prepared to protect diplomats in Venezuela if needed.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Adm. Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 7.

Faller did not provide any additional details on how the U.S. military would respond, but he said their rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population” of Venezuela. The admiral also noted that Venezuela had about 2,000 generals, most of whom were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they gained largely from drug trafficking, petroleum revenue, and business revenue.

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido heads to a session of the National Assembly in Caracas, on Feb. 5, 2019. (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

“The legitimate government of President Guaidó has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the Constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” he said.

The Trump administration also said they were contemplating whether to lift sanctions on military members who side with Guaidó.

“The U.S. will consider sanctions off-ramps for any Venezuelan senior military officer that stands for democracy and recognizes the constitutional government of President Juan  Guaidó,” White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Twitter on Feb. 6.

“If not, the international financial circle will be closed off completely. Make the right choice!”

It comes as global pressure against Maduro’s regime continues to mount. Nine major European nations, including Britain, Germany, France, and Spain, are among the more than 20 governments that have since recognized Guaidó as the interim president. But Maduro still appears defiant, hinting in a speech to supporters on Feb. 5 that the young opposition leader could soon be sent to prison for his presidency challenge.