Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday announced the arrests of three air force generals who allegedly plotted a coup against his government, revealing the first cracks in his support among the military after more than a month of protests and violence.
Maduro said the generals were apprehended on Monday but did not disclose their names or details of the plot, according to reports. More than 30 people have died in the protests against Maduro’s rule, which the opposition blames on a crackdown by state security forces and pro-government militias.
Venezuelan journalist Javier Majorca tweeted on Wednesday that three more colonels in the National Guard had been removed. The Defense Ministry also scheduled a mandatory meeting Thursday morning for top naval officers.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, said in an interview that Maduro has often referred to alleged conspiracies against his rule without offering specifics. Local reports suggest this latest incident was real.
“A lot of peoples’ first reaction is he’s making it up to distract attention or to otherwise change the narrative, but I really do believe that this was indicative of something that really did happen after talking to people on the ground and getting a sense from down there,” he said.
“The worst kept secret in Venezuela over the last couple years has been that there are many in the military who are just dissatisfied with the direction of the country,” he added. “A lot of that began with the increased presence of Cuban officials within the decision-making sectors of the government.”
Thousands of Cuban officials have filled roles in the Venezuelan government in recent years, particularly advisory positions for internal security. Venezuela repays Cuba’s communist government with oil exports worth more than $3 billion annually.
Maduro, elected narrowly last April, has close ties to the Castro brothers in Cuba and was viewed as the “Cubans’ man in Caracas,” Cardenas said. Maduro’s rise to power only exacerbated tensions with more nationalist members of the military.
Luis Miquilena, an ideological mentor to former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, said earlier this month that Cuba had sent a “true army of occupation” to the country.
“The Cubans run the maritime ports, airports, communications, the most essential issues in Venezuela,” said Miquilena, also a former head of Venezuela’s National Assembly. “We are in the hands of a foreign country.”
The Cuban influence is most evident in the government’s repression of protesters, Cardenas said. Demonstrators attribute rampant crime, inflation, and shortages in the country to Maduro’s mismanagement.
Analysts say a new currency market unveiled by the government this week to supply more dollars and alleviate shortages will not significantly improve Venezuela’s economy.
Opposition leaders have refused to attend “peace talks” with Maduro until the government releases jailed protesters. Maria Corina Machado, an opposition lawmaker who recently lost her seat and was stripped of immunity from prosecution, could be the next to face jail time on charges of criminal conspiracy and treason.
The military’s response will be crucial if the violence and unrest continues, Cardenas said.
“Nobody wants to see a military coup in Latin America—it brings us back to the bad old days,” he said.
“But when in the case of Maduro you are continuing to taunt and insult and repress a significant part of the population of your country and demonstrate an inability to control disorder in streets, well sooner or later something’s going to break.”