Revolt fights grip of fear
With US aid in plain sight but tantalisingly out of reach, the threat of reprisals holds back Venezuela's rank and file
A huge majority of rank and file members of Venezuela's creaking security forces are ready to fall behind the country's self-proclaimed interim president and defy the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
But current and former members of the police and army have told reporters that fear of reprisals and the intense internal surveillance by intelligence services were holding back a full-scale revolt.
It comes as the US is engaged in a high-stakes game to test the loyalty of Venezuela's armed forces by deploying aid on the border with Colombia - effectively asking them to chose between alleviating suffering or staying faithful to the regime.
Yesterday the Venezuelan military stood guard on the empty bridge across the frontier as shipping containers blocked deliveries of pallets stacked with medicines and basic food. The sixty tons of food and medicine began arriving from the USA on Thursday and was placed on the Colombian side, but within viewing distance of Venezuela. It's a high-stakes game designed to put pressure on Nicolas Maduro - and also stoke unrest among the local population.
The plan is working. In a sign of increasing desperation, residents in the nearby town of Urena said they are ready to turn on the security forces if the aid is not allowed in.
"We are absolutely ready to resist if the government does not allow the aid to enter," Unay Bayona, a chef and youth worker, said as the standoff continues.
Urena was once known for its jeans industry - though with hyperinflation, jeans are now much too expensive for most Venezuelans. Many of the factories are empty shells.
Jorge Gonzalez, 63, used to work on one of the production lines. "This government is full of lies and corruption," he said. "Look what they've done to the economy. The workers suffer most - but we are ready to fight back."
There are signs that even some of the most hardened pro-Maduro groups are beginning to turn. Kiki, a man in his 40s, who withholds his full name for fear of reprisals, belonged to a "colectivo", an armed militia called on by the regime to suppress dissent. He left the group and moved to Urena two years ago.
"These guys say they're promoting socialism, but they're only interested in violence and making money," Kiki said. "But they will definitely be ready for any trouble that comes."
The opposition - led by Juan Guaido, now widely recognised abroad as Venezuela's official president - are due to cross into Colombia early next week to retrieve the aid. They are gambling on the army and national guard relenting to pressure and waving them through. "The government system is already broken, and now what's needed is a trigger to end it all," a former member of the country's police force, who fled a year ago, said.
The former investigator said he left the country after he became fearful that he was himself under investigation. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals on family members still in Venezuela, said the effort by the US to deliver aid could provoke more defections from the Maduro regime. A serving member of the Venezuelan police force, who also asked not to be named, said it is believed that up to 90pc of security forces are ready to defect - but a culture of fear still grips lower-ranking officers.
"It means that the day I speak out in support of Guaido and against Maduro better be the day I'm leaving the country," another member of the National Police said.
Within the armed forces and police units, morale continues to hit new lows, with some earning as little as a few dollars per month and inflation set to reach 10,000,000pc this year. Within the army barracks, the quantity and variety of food rations have been reduced as the country's economic crisis has dragged on, according to Juan Mateus, a former army captain who fled nearly three years ago.
"It's a disaster," he said via phone. "These are soldiers going hungry."
Last week Mateus released an online video encouraging Guaido to appoint a parallel defence minister. According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, up to 6pc of the country's national guard has deserted since 2014. But while the rank and file suffer the effects of the economic catastrophe, the generals and captains continue to enjoy the spoils of corruption and government connections.
In Transparency International's recently released Corruption Perceptions Index, Venezuela was perceived as one of the most corrupt countries, ranking 168th out of 180.
"The life that the directors live is incredible," said the former investigative police officer. "They would arrive with $3,000 suits and no shame in front of regular officers who couldn't afford to eat three times a day."
Those privileges will prevent the upper ranks of the armed forces from turning on the regime, according to Mateus. "They've committed so many crimes, and stolen so much, the only option they see is to hang on," he said.
Back in Urena's shops and supermarkets, there is produce, but it is simply too expensive for most people to buy. A carton of 30 eggs costs 14,000 bolivars and a kilo of cheese 20,000 bolivars. However the monthly minimum wage is 18,000 bolivars.
The border has been closed intermittently in the past year as millions of Venezuelans have fled. A closure in 2016 to tackle illegal trafficking led to the formation of the Women in White, a campaign group from Urena that forced its reopening.
But the food and medicines remain tantalisingly out of reach over the bridge.
"This is aid we desperately need," said Lucero Varela, an activist from the movement. "People are dying here. We're ready to defend the town again and remove whatever they have on that bridge."