The Venezuelan opposition has begun repeatedly calling for the nation’s military to act in the face of an increasingly oppressive dictatorship, urging soldiers not to follow orders to attack protesters with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
The latest to add to these calls is Lilian Tintori, wife of political prisoner Leopoldo López, currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for having organized a peaceful anti-socialist march in 2014. Tintori also recently visited President Donald Trump in Washington to urge the United States to act against dictator Nicolás Maduro.
In a letter addressed to soldiers published Sunday, Tintori urges soldiers not to use violence against protesters, who have vowed to march every day until Maduro announced a presidential election. “You, just like me, have a mother, probably have children or are married, maybe have siblings, and I am sure that they, just like my family, are unjustly suffering through the horrors all Venezuelans are facing these days,” she writes.
She highlights an incident that occurred last week during anti-government protests in which an older woman approached an armored truck and stood in its way, as well as a nude man who approached the trucks holding only a Bible, asking soldiers to “reflect.”
“Those who order you to attack your own people use you as cannon fodder,” she tells soldiers. “Enough… lower your weapons, open your arms, and embrace with your shield those who are like you, the people, not the powerful dictators.”
Tintori’s message – which concludes with a request that soldiers hug her if they see her out in the streets of Caracas protesting – follows the news of three soldiers deserting the military entirely and fleeing to Colombia, where they are seeking political asylum as refugees. The three men reportedly published a video online demanding that Maduro step down before fleeing the country, and they are now requesting Colombia take them in for fear of retribution.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez is demanding the Colombian government extradite the soldiers. “Political asylum cannot be guaranteed to military officers or deserters who have openly called for a coup d’etat in a video against President Maduro,” she argued.
It is not certain whether these soldiers were responding to the opposition’s call for the military to abandon Maduro. Last week, the opposition head of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, made a similar plea to Tintori’s, calling for the military to “break their silence” amid a wave of anti-socialist protests.
“Part of our daily struggle is for the armed forces to no longer be held hostage by a powerful few and become democratic forces fighting for Venezuela’s constitution,” Borges argued.
Maduro appears concerned that soldiers may heed this call. Last week, he organized a military march “repudiating the traitors of the nation” in which Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López boomed: “The National Bolivarian Armed Forces preserve their monolithic unity [and] ratifies its unconditional loyalty to the president.” Maduro recently announced an operation meant to find and contain dissidents within the military, called the “Zamora Plan,” allegedly meant to prevent a military coup.
Maduro’s secret police also recently whisked out of his home General Ángel Vivas, a longtime dissenter who had locked himself down in his home in 2014. Vivas is reportedly in a secret prison, his wife telling authorities that his was a “forced disappearance.”
Years ago, Vivas declared he would not take orders from Maduro due to his closeness with the communist government of Cuba. “The root and inspiration of Venezuela’s revolutionary project is Cuba and Chavez chose Maduro as his successor because nobody is more loyal to that project better than Maduro,” he said in 2014, insisting he would not take orders from the Cuban government.
If the military turns on him, Maduro will also have at his disposal informal socialist gangs known as colectivos, and the semi-official Bolivarian militias meant to supplement them.
Maduro announced last week that he hopes to arm up to one million socialists to empower them to subdue protests. Gun ownership is banned in Venezuela unless one is a member of a socialist militia.