When two trucks loaded with soldiers pulled up outside his butcher shop in the Barrio Unión slum of eastern Caracas, Daniel felt a deep unease.
“They went into all the shops in the area, forcing us to sell at a loss,” says Daniel, not his real name, of the incident earlier this month. The army men demanded that Daniel sell his beef at 250 bolívares (roughly $0.25 at black market rates) a kilo, even though he explained it cost 3,000 bolívars to buy from his suppliers.
“They told me the beef belonged to the people and stayed seven hours as a huge queue formed outside. This was militarised,” said Daniel, originally from Portugal. Later he saw television news reports of the coup attempt in Turkey: “My first thought was that the same thing was also happening here.”
As socialist Venezuela faces its worst economic crisis in living memory, the country’s armed forces, under the command of defence minister General Vladimir Padrino López, have emerged as a key player.
Many were unnerved when Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s unpopular president, this month handed the military extraordinary powers to tackle ravaging shortages in a country where food and basic medicines are increasingly hard to find and the inflation rate is forecast to top 700 per cent.
As well as taking charge of food production and distribution, Venezuela’s ports have come under army control, and several government ministries now report directly to the defence minister and to Mr Maduro.
Giovanna de Michele, a defence expert at the Central University of Venezuela, says that, bolstered by these new powers, Gen Padrino López is now “the most powerful man in Venezuela”.
Low oil prices and years of mismanagement have left Venezuela’s economy in a parlous state, with the economy set to shrink 10 per cent this year. The crisis has given impetus to moves by opposition groups to remove Mr Maduro from office via a so-called recall referendum — a process that is under way. The country’s electoral council, which has been stymieing the proposed vote, is due to announce on Monday whether the next stage of the referendum can proceed.
But in a region once known for military coups, observers say any transition away from Mr Maduro would require the approval of the armed forces, even though Gen Padrino López says his new responsibilities are “a matter of discipline, not one of militarisation”.
In a co-written article on the Latin America Goes Global website, Javier Corrales, a Venezuela scholar at Amherst College in the US, says the decision to lean more heavily on the army is “the clearest sign that a dangerously weak government, rapidly losing control of the situation, has taken desperate measures to survive”.
Yet with polls suggesting Venezuelans favour removing the president, Mr Corrales raises “another possible interpretation: that this was a semi-coup by the military against a rudderless, ineffective and discredited Maduro government”.
This is the clearest sign that a dangerously weak government, rapidly losing control of the situation, has taken desperate measures to survive
- Javier Corrales, Venezuela scholar at Amherst College
Others, however, believe little has changed in a country with a history of state control over the economy. Francisco Rodríguez, the Venezuelan chief economist at Torino Capital, the US investment bank, says: “We do not see this role as unprecedented, nor do we believe it signals a change in terms of the relative power of the military in society.”
Since the 2002 coup attempt that briefly ousted the late Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s predecessor and the ideological inspiration for Venezuelan socialism, the country’s armed forces have been stacked with loyal generals in an attempt to create what the president calls a “civic-military union”.
Analysts say the military assures social control for the Maduro government, in return for preferential access to goods and hard currency. An opposition rally in Caracas on Wednesday to demand the activation of the recall vote was swamped by an overwhelming presence of security forces.
Mr Maduro has also promoted a number of army figures, including Gen Padrino López — an experienced and decorated soldier, respected by his troops, according to insiders — to senior government positions.
One close colleague says the defence minister is “a conciliator who is respectful of the institutions and who will sacrifice anything to follow an order”. But he warns: “I fear Maduro wants Padrino López there to keep enemies away. But he will drag him down with him.”
With food riots becoming commonplace and Venezuelans flocking in their thousands to neighbouring Colombia in search of food, the armed forces face a difficult task to stave off further unrest.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst at the IHS risk consultancy, says it is clear the military will play a bigger role over the next 12 months as the army takes control of most sectors of the economy, which “will mitigate the risks of a coup against Maduro unless sustained riots and looting over food shortages escalate”.
This will do little to lessen the unease of Daniel, the butcher, who is old enough to recall the long dictatorship in his native Portugal of António de Oliveira Salazar: “When the military have too much power they always abuse.”