Something big happened at Venezuela's Fort Paramacay military base early Aug. 6, but the only clear thing about the event is that it's significant. Piecing together information from the Venezuelan government and independent media reports, we can gather that around 5 a.m. local time a group of people entered Fort Paramacay in Valencia. It's unknown how the individuals gained access to the base, but according to government reports they made their way to the armory and stole more than 90 AK-103 rifles and four rocket-propelled grenades. Security forces responded, and two of the intruders were killed in a shootout. Eight people, whom the government accused of being involved, were presented to the press later the same day.
At first it was unclear whether the event actually took place or whether it was merely a government public relations stunt. (All initial reports came from the embattled, increasingly authoritarian administration of President Nicolas Maduro.) However, as the day wore on, it became clear that a theft did occur at Fort Paramacay, and the central question became: What does it mean?
The obvious threat at the top of Venezuelan security planners' minds is the possibility that the stolen weapons will be used against loyalist forces. But by itself this wouldn't be enough to truly threaten the government's hold on power. Widespread military disloyalty, however, would. It's unclear how the group got into the base, but government reports say a first lieutenant at the base colluded with the raiders. And if this means broader dissent within parts of the military, the Venezuelan government is in trouble.
It's a critical time for the Maduro government. Already-rough conditions in Venezuela are rapidly deteriorating even further. The government could soon default, the United States is mulling sanctions on the country's oil sector, and at current rates, inflation could reach 4,000 percent year on year by 2020. As inflation worsens, an increasing number of military members and their families will experience food shortages and economic difficulty. Higher-ranking officials in the armed forces are insulated from the economic crisis, but thousands of lower-ranking members and their families are not. This decline in their standard of living raises the risk that they might openly defy the government, which would undermine its ability to rule without taking popular opinion or its political opponents into account.
And it couldn't be a worse time for the Venezuelan government. Maduro's loyalists are trying to plan a National Constituent Assembly meeting to rewrite the constitution in their favor and to delay elections — partly in the hope that oil prices will rise and provide the economy (and therefore the government) a needed boost. And the government is counting on the military's support. If enough members of the military become disillusioned, the possibility of a coup cannot be ruled out. However, that's not the only threat posed by a disloyal military. Instead of a sudden coup, groups of military dissenters lacking the ability to remove the government outright could begin a lengthy process of attrition, either through attacks or acts of defiance.
The Maduro government has shown that it intends to cling to power however it can, despite low approval ratings. But it has been able to do so this long only because of the military. Over the past year and a half, the government has successfully fended off an attempt to hold a recall referendum against the president and has virtually ignored the demands of the opposition-controlled congress. It has also pushed forward on a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and effectively turn Venezuela into a one-party state. But without the support of the military, Maduro will be unable to make progress with the assembly without risking rebellion. Put simply: The Venezuelan government needs a critical mass of loyalty from the military to survive.
Still, even if members of the military turn on Maduro and his government, the government will not abandon the constituent assembly without a fight. Challenges from the military will be met with force by parts of the military that remain loyal. And if enough dissidents pit themselves against the government, there could be a prolonged and possibly violent standoff. It's important to recognize that military dissidents would not necessarily be guided by or aligned with the political opposition, and their disloyalty could create a tangle of politically motivated violence that would have to be unraveled before the country's substantial economic problems could even begin to be addressed.