- 567 Venezuelan soldiers defected to Colombia, according to Colombian officials, amid a spiraling political crisis in Venezuela.
- The military is a vital power base for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, which his rival Juan Guaidó is trying to chip away at.
- Amanda Lapo, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Business Insider that the defections show that military loyalty “is not unanimous any more.”
More than 500 Venezuelan soldiers have fled President Nicolás Maduro’s crumbling regime for neighboring Colombia, the Colombian migration authority reported Thursday.
The wave of desertions comes as opposition leader Juan Guaidó continues to seek support from the armed forces, which are one of the foundations of Maduro’s authority.
Venezuelans are living through one of the world worst’s economic crises under Maduro’s socialist regime, and are struggling with shortages of food and medicine.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have called on Maduro to step down, saying that his presidency is unconstitutional and fraudulent. Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has declared himself interim president, on the grounds that Maduro’s reign is illegitimate.
Many saw Guaidó’s attempt to transport aid over the Colombian-Venezuelan border at the weekend as a play to test the loyalty of Maduro’s soldiers.
The Venezuelan armed forces are an important power base for Maduro. Military leaders in Venezuela publicly backed him last month.
Guaidó has claimed that he had met some members of the military in secret, implying that the military’s solidarity with Maduro is not as solid as it may seem.
The soldiers who left for Colombia are mostly from middle and lower ranks, who are more affected by the country’s hyperinflation and shortages, according to The Associated Press.
They also work with faulty equipment and are monitored by intelligence services, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported.
Amanda Lapo, a defense and military analyst at the IISS, said that it is not yet certain that increasing defections are a threat to Maduro.
“The defections don’t appear to be on a senior enough level to undermine Maduro,” she told Business Insider.
Venezuela’s military, which employs between 95,000 and 150,000 active soldiers, has wide reach in the country. But the power is concentrated among high-ranking officials, who hold important government positions and control influential companies.
Many are also implicated in human rights abuses and drug trafficking, according to the AP. In other words, military leaders have a lot to lose if they defect.
Venezuelan officers also appear under pressure to support the Maduro regime. One defected soldier told Al Jazeera English that the government would “threaten us. If we weren’t part of their political party, they’d lock us up.”
‘Their loyalty is not unanimous anymore’
Lapo said, however, that the defection do show a split in the military.
“What they do reflect is that there is a division in the armed forces. Their loyalty is not unanimous anymore,” she said told Business Insider.
“There is a growing gap between the middle and lower ranks who feel the effects of the crisis and the higher ranks which enjoy economic benefits.”
Winning the military over has proved a daunting task for Guaidó. Despite saying in a New York Times op-ed that he had offered amnesty to any member of the armed forces who hadn’t committed crimes against humanity, he has only garnered the support of one high-ranking officer.
Francisco Yanez, a general in the Venezuelan air force, announced via video that he had broken from Maduro and pledged allegiance to Guaidó via video last month. He also claimed that “90% of the armed forces are not with the dictator,” referring to Maduro.
Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Venezuela’s defense minister, slammed the defectors and accused them of betraying their country.
He said in a video posted on Twitter: “It doesn’t matter how many there are. Those who dishonor their uniforms can’t call themselves soldiers.”
9. Los 109 militares que han desertado han siso degradados de la #FANB "no importa la cantidad no pueden llamarse militares los que deshonran el uniforme y cuando digo que no importa es porque los que nos quedamos vamos a defender con las armas, el espíritu y la razón la patria" pic.twitter.com/iTjWtCNAYT
— Madelein Garcia (@madeleintlSUR) February 27, 2019
Guaidó, meanwhile, said he wants to focus on galvanizing support from the military and state workers. He told reporters in Brazil that he will return to Venezuela this weekend, according to The Washington Post.