Venezuela's army has declared its support for Nicolas Maduro. But differences between top officers and the rank and file could weaken the military's loyalty to the president — with far-reaching consequences.
After opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez declared on Twitter: "Our armed forces will never accept a president appointed by dark powers."
Padrino Lopez labeled Guaido's self-appointment a coup d'etat. Immediately afterward, the commander of the army, Jesus Suarez Chourio, declared his "absolute loyalty" to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Other leading military figures then went on television and echoed the pledge to Maduro.
The question is about whether Maduro can rely on the military in the power struggle against Guaido. Despite the oaths of allegiance, Maduro may not be able to count on the full support of the military in his struggle against Guaido, according to Ana Soliz Landivar de Stange, a political scientist at the Helmut Schmidt University of the Federal Armed Forces.
"It takes more than just tweets," she told DW. "We must see a formal endorsement of democratic process from the army." That does not mean they have to personally express their support for Maduro, she added.
"If the armed forces support constitutional order in this situation, they could also speak out in favor of speedy presidential elections," Soliz Landivar de Stange said.
For Wolfgang Muno, a political scientist from the University of Rostock, the decisions that the armed forces make will have a massive influence on the outcome of the current crisis.
"Whoever wins the support of the military will determine the future of the country," he told DW.
He added that he does not see rifts between the army leadership and the Maduro government: "High-ranking officials benefit from the regime. They have privileges and benefits and they control the economy and politics. They will not support the opposition."
However, Soliz Landivar de Stange and Muno pointed to a latent lack of satisfaction in the Venezuelan army, especially among in the middle ranks of officers and the rank and file troops.
Low-ranking soldiers harbor considerable misgivings against Maduro because they "suffer from the shortages just like ordinary Venezuelans," added Soliz Landivar de Stange.
"One thing is certain: the country's military is divided," former Trade and Industry Minister Moises Naim said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Some of the armed forces were "very, very unhappy" with the situation in the country.
Maduro's network: Drug trafficking and money laundering
But that sentiment is not shared among high-ranking officers who have become intertwined in Maduro's network, according to Alexia Barrios, one of Mexico's leading security researchers. She reported that Maduro has received support from the Los Soles cartel. She said the Odebrecht scandal and Panama Papers have shown the cartel is a network of politicians and officials who, along with a group of high-ranking military personnel, are involved in crimes such as drug trafficking and money laundering.
"There are people so involved with these crimes that they cannot abandon the government just like that," said Soliz Landivar de Stange, adding that if they defected from the current president, they would face the threat of legal proceedings and probably land in prison.
Günther Maihold of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said a split in military support could have a decisive role in ending the current political power struggle. An amnesty Guaido has offered to members of the military who disavow the president could be enough to get generals to turn their backs on Maduro.