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Success Of Venezuela's Opposition Campaign Depends On The Country's Security Forces


No one in Venezuela disputes that if Nicolas Maduro loses the support of his top military commanders he falls from power. Today, there seems to be a fracture. There's a video circulating on Twitter of an air force general saying that he now recognizes the opposition leader as the legitimate interim head of state. The Venezuelan air force says this defecting general is a traitor and alleges he's done this because his father is under investigation for corruption. This is occurring on a highly charged day with mass demonstrations planned by both sides. NPR's Philip Reeves says the country's political crisis is presenting many officers in Venezuela's security forces with a dilemma.


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Juan Guaido has a message that's become his mantra at every public meeting. Venezuela's police and military should abandon Maduro, he says, get on the right side of history before it's too late. Yet switching sides for a Venezuelan in uniform is easier said than done.

We've come to a sidewalk cafe to meet a police officer. NPR's withholding his name at his request because he fears reprisals. As Venezuela's political power struggle intensifies, this officer's agonizing over what to do.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) It's hard for us because we are going through the same crisis as everyone else.

REEVES: This man's been a cop for a quarter of a century. He says when he signed up, pay and conditions were good. He had health insurance and bonuses and could afford holidays abroad. Now his pay's almost worthless because of hyperinflation. Venezuela's government's so broke he has to buy his own uniform, even his boots. Many cops are suffering from acute poverty, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) There's pretty widespread discontent because they go to work without eating for the whole day. They have no food at home.

REEVES: This officer says he's been shot three times in the line of duty. That was part of the job of maintaining law and order. As the current political crisis gathers momentum, this officer worries about what else he'll be asked to do in the line of duty.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) They ask you to repress the people. These people are ourselves, our families.

REEVES: This man says he knows many senior officers in the police force, including from elite units, who are against Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party. But he adds...

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) We can't speak out. If we do that, the first thing they'll do is go after our families.

REEVES: Officers who are disloyal are fired, arrested and imprisoned, he says. That makes turning against Maduro's government very risky. Yet he believes many government employees are on the verge of doing so.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) We're getting close to that point. The police, civil servants, fire brigade, intelligence services - we're all going through the same crisis.

REEVES: He says he's thinking seriously about switching sides.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Through interpreter) I would like to. I wish I could. But I think about my family. What if this Maduro government doesn't fall and nothing happens?

REEVES: That's certainly what Maduro is hoping for. Maduro knows if he loses the support of his security forces, especially the military, he's out. He started visiting his armed forces pretty much every day to watch them hold televised military exercises in an attempted show of strength and to rally his soldiers.



REEVES: "No one respects cowards and traitors," Maduro tells them. The army's high command has said it is supporting him. Lower in the ranks, though, there've been recent uprisings and many desertions.

As he presses ahead with his campaign to take charge of Venezuela and hold free elections, Guaido has created an incentive for the security forces to give him their allegiance. The National Assembly, which Guido leads, has decided to offer amnesty to military and civilian government officials. Human rights activists believe the planned law is way too vague.

ALFREDO ROMERO: There have to be some limits.

REEVES: Alfredo Romero is director of the human rights organization Foro Penal in Venezuela. He's concerned there could be blanket impunity for Venezuelan officials who've committed serious abuses.

ROMERO: The whole world at this moment knows - the human rights world knows that in Venezuela, there are human rights abuses. In Venezuela, there are crimes against humanity. There is a preliminary exam opened by the International Criminal Court already. And everyone who is in the government is in some way directly or indirectly involved human rights abuses. So this is a very important thing.

REEVES: A recent tweet by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has deepened those concerns. I wish Nicolas Maduro and his top advisers a long quiet retirement living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela, said Bolton. They should take advantage of President Guaido's amnesty and move on. Romero of Foro Penal has nothing against amnesty for some.

ROMERO: But the ones that are, for example, involved in crimes against humanity or important human rights abuses cannot be included in that amnesty.

REEVES: In the capital, Caracas, it isn't hard to find Venezuelans who agree with that. They point to deadly atrocities by armed pro-government militiamen called colectivos, by death squads within the police and hard-line elements in the National Guard and intelligence.



REEVES: Talk to people at rallies supporting Guaido and you soon see how much some of them fear these forces.

PEDRO: This is a dictatorship.

REEVES: Worried by reprisals, this man would only give his name as Pedro. He says he's heard about the possible blanket amnesty.

PEDRO: But I think people won't allow that. I mean, the people of the country is so angry. It has to be some kind of justice.

REEVES: Damia Franji is a lawyer who's 29.

DAMIA FRANJI: We won't be able to forgive. There's a lot of people that suffered directly and indirectly. There are so many people dead, and I think there's people that won't get our forgiveness.

REEVES: Venezuela hasn't reached that point yet. For now, Maduro still holds power. He's showing no interest in heading for the beach. Maduro will eventually fall, says the police officer in the cafe, though, he worries about how.


REEVES: He says Venezuela's like a pressure cooker that's about to explode. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "THROUGH YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.