How to Tackle Venezuela’s Transition and Military Corruption

Venezuelan soldiers and militia members were filmed by the state last month to show their strength and their support for President Nicolás Maduro.

Nobody knows for sure who the real president of Venezuela is at the moment: Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in on Jan. 10, or Juan Guaidó, who shortly afterward assumed the powers of the presidency, on behalf of the legislature.

Mr. Guaidó has captured the heart of the nation. A vast majority of Venezuelans support him. All political parties in Venezuela other than the ruling party accept his legal argument — that Mr. Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent. He returned to his homeland today — once again challenging a travel ban imposed on him by Maduro’s regime — after touring five Latin American countries to shore up support for democracy in Venezuela.

Mr. Maduro has the heart of only one institution: the military. This was evidenced on Feb. 23, when he used brute military force to successfully block the entry of humanitarian aid, killing civilians, and in Nero-like fashion, set some delivery trucks on fire, while he danced salsa on national television.

The question is how to confront Mr. Maduro’s military assault without turning to military action. This is Venezuela’s predicament. As a peaceful resolution appears increasingly unlikely, Mr. Guaidó has called on the opposition allies to mediate or intervene.

Most analysts agree that foreign intervention is risky. The logistics are complicated.

However, few alternatives exist short of militarizing the conflict, even though they still would involve some degree of militarization. To understand this, we must first understand how Mr. Maduro’s military operates.

In every authoritarian regime, military support is the sine qua non of regime survival: Remove the support of the military and the dictator falls. In that sense, the Maduro regime fits the conventional model of authoritarian politics. Democratization requires decoupling the military from Maduro.

But the politics of decoupling the military from Maduro has proved complicated because Mr. Maduro’s military alliance, in many respects, is more unconventional than not. His military is not a single, professional, vertical organization. It comprises multiple elements, each with its own interest in supporting the regime. A strategy to divorce it from Mr. Maduro requires deploying policies to address each of those groups.

There’s the standard military establishment, which in Venezuela consists of professional career soldiers. Then there are nonstandard groups. They include ideologized soldiers, working together with Cuban military and intelligence officials to crack down on dissent. They also include bureaucrat generals who support Mr. Maduro because they have good jobs running state-owned corporations, and profit-seeking soldiers, who are making a fortune trafficking in illicit markets, including the drug trade. Finally, there are Maduro’s killing agents, in charge of repressing

Before the 2000s, the possibility of this type of diversity within the military was hardly discussed in military politics textbooks. Today, this diversity, or what political scientists are calling the new oligopoly of state violence, is what undemocratic regimes and failed states prefer. And in Venezuela, this oligopoly is dominated by the criminal-minded soldiers and killing agents.

Killing agents in particular have become the hallmark of Mr. Maduro’s rule. They comprise two groups: the Special Actions Forces, or FAES, created in 2017 to combat crime but in reality charged with conducting politically motivated killings in poor neighborhoods, and the so-called colectivos, armed civilians paid by the government. In the early 2000s, colectivos were community-organized reservists. Today they consist mostly of delinquents, thugs and even former inmates. They show up on motorcycles at protests, gun in hand and with their faces covered, to terrorize participants. Colectivos spare professional soldiers from the need to repress.

The problem with Mr. Guaidó’s strategy — in fact, any peaceful and democratic strategy to demilitarize a regime — is that it cannot easily address the concerns of these disparate military groups.

Some can be addressed with policies already offered by the interim president. For instance, Mr. Guaidó’s offer of transitional justice (amnesty) with fair elections has enormous appeal to scared soldiers and many professional soldiers. This is why we are seeing defections by many of these soldiers.

But there is little in Mr. Guaidó’s peaceful change policies that would appeal to hard-core ideologues, for-profit and criminal soldiers, and colectivos. Hard-core ideologues are likely to stand with Mr. Maduro unconditionally. The for-profit generals will gain little from transitional justice: They will be left without status and profits even if their transgressions are forgiven. And the colectivos are especially hard to deal with because they are the least controllable group — they are too decentralized and have no corporate interest to defend.

Transitioning to democracy in Venezuela will require putting order to this fragmented military. The darkest groups within this institution cannot be invited to join a democratic movement — that would produce an instant conflict of interest. Instead, these criminal military leaders need to be neutralized.

A civilian alone cannot do it. Only actors from within the military establishment — those who know the identities of the armed actors within their ranks, their businesses and deals — can do the revamping of the military that is needed.

Mr. Guaidó and his international allies may have no option but to entertain an interim foreign military partnership under some form of international tutelage. They need to continue to reach out to some of the more honest military officers, those interested in the integrity of the institution, to turn against not just Mr. Maduro but also the disparate groups across the military. The mission: Bring the military institution back to order. But this is very dangerous for the Officers and their families. The tyrannical regime will act swiftly to neutralize their efforts

The course of change will require applying a combination of force and some concessions. . Smart witness-protection programs along with an expansion of amnesty provisions will need to be offered. Prison, Exile, or Justice courts will need to be found for both profit-seeking soldiers and colectivos.

The transition to democracy, given the fragmented and dark nature of Venezuela’s military, will therefore never be a clean, overnight transition from military rule to civilian rule if the peaceful route is chosen. It will require a transition period that no doubt will be unpleasant for Venezuelans, but  a positive move toward re-humanizing that beautiful country and its people.