The Armed Forces in the Venezuelan crisis

The role of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) in the current Venezuelan political and institutional crisis has been the subject of a raft of analyses, public statements, Tweets, and expectations. Essentially, the FANB are considered key to balancing or even unblocking the political and institutional course of future Venezuela.

Liñas de investigación International Relations
Apartados xeográficos Latin America
Palabras chave Venezuela Forzas Armadas
Idiomas Inglés

The role of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) in the current Venezuelan political and institutional crisis has been the subject of a raft of analyses, public statements, Tweets, and expectations. Essentially, the FANB are considered key to balancing or even unblocking the political and institutional course of future Venezuela.

This level of power is well acknowledged by the two leaders who are fighting for the presidential legitimacy of the country—Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó—but also by external actors with varying degrees of influence in the Venezuelan crisis, such as the United States, the Lima Group and the European Union on the one hand, and Russia, China and Cuba on the other.  As a result, both sides make regular appeals to the military to gain its support in an effort to shape the future of the country.  

Based on the FANB’s current pivotal hold on power, there are three possible scenarios: the “chavista-madurista” power structure will remain unchanged; the FANB will attend Guaidó’s call through his proposed Amnesty Law, triggering a major institutional breakdown that ignores Maduro’s authority; or as the institutional arbitrator, the FANB will broker a political transition.

But before considering possible outcomes with the FANB in a central role, it is important to provide some context and understand what factors—both internal and external—contributed to making the FANB the main repository of power in the South American country.

The rise of the FANB to power: The “corporate-military” 

Thanks to the late former president Hugo Chávez, but even more so with Maduro, the FANB has practically become the true holder of economic and business power in Venezuela, overseeing activities from agriculture to finance to construction and numerous services. 

But there are two strategic economic sectors under control of the FANB that dominate: the oil and mining sector—controlled through the “Compañía Anónima Militar de Industrias Mineras, Petrolíferas y Gasíferas (CAMIMPEG);” and food distribution—monitored through the Great Sovereign Supply Mission (Gran Misión de Abastecimiento Soberano). The FANB seems to have reproduced the business model of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, replicating Cuba’s Business Administration Group (GAESA), which has given the Cuban military establishment a preponderant political and economic power in the island.

The key actor within the FANB is the Minister of Popular Power for Defense, the General in Chief of the Army Vladimir Padrino López. He is considered a military loyalist to the Bolivarian Constitution, aligned with Chávez’s project. Padrino López knows each component of the FANB in depth, and as of now holds full legitimacy and leadership of the military establishment.

According to Ministry of Defense data, the FANB has between 95,000 and 150,000 troops. In addition, more than 1,000 active and retired military officers serve in public posts, in charge of political and economic decision-making, both at the corporate level and in the bureaucratic structures of the State. FANB servicemen hold 30 percent of the Venezuelan state governorships, performing a role that is often alien to their own training and constitutional responsibilities in defense and security matters.

The catalyst to the FANB’s consolidation of power was the adoption in 2011 of the Organic Law of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces—established within the Ministry of Popular Power for Defense—that ramped up the political, institutional and national security role of the military establishment. The institutional reconversion of the armed forces as FANB also allowed the adoption of new doctrines such as the “new Venezuelan military ideology” and the strategy of “asymmetric warfare,” a strategy to protect the country from any external military aggression, historically from the U.S., and now—in theory—any other actor that presumably “under orders from Washington”—as Maduro has railed repeatedly—could threaten the survival of the regime.

After Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013 and the emergence of a post-Chávezchavismo” embodied in Maduro, the institutional and political role of the FANB as a strategic element to consolidate the so-called “Bolivarian and Socialist Revolution” has been further strengthened by “institutionalizing” the chavista mission.

The Bolivarian national militia

Within the FANB ranks co-exists a unique and unprecedented force: the Bolivarian National Militia (MNB).  

Created in 2008 by National Executive order after the Organic Law of the National Armed Forces (LOFAN) was reformed, the MNB has grown in shape and influence from a voluntary base (“the people in arms”) loyal to the Bolivarian and socialist process to become a rival to the military, even though it’s within the FANB’s organizational structure. The MNB is also tasked with carrying out various social programs at the community level, ensuring the regime’s proximity and connection to its “popular chavista” base.

The opposition has accused the MNB of establishing itself as a “praetorian body,”—an unconstitutional agency, politically and ideologically ascribed to “chavismo.” Others argue that the MNB engages in the harassment and political repression of dissidents and opposition groups, actions usually blamed on the armed groups known as “colectivos.” According to the NGO PROVEA, those private, chavista militias are part of the scaffolding of a system promoted by Maduro that has converted them into “paramilitary bodies” mobilized for repression and intimidation.

In any case, under the current crisis, Maduro has already announced the advancement and expansion of the MNB to the point of elevating the body to a constitutional rank within the post-chavismo power structure. In a recent military act that took place last June, Maduro publicly requested to increase the number of militiamen by more than four million, a move that would complement his control over the FANB but with a greater volume of loyal elements to solidify its power. 

Cuba, Russia and China

In terms of external alliances, Russia, China, and Cuba have become the FANB’s main partners. Moscow and Beijing’s support has allowed Venezuela to renovate its military equipment, altering drastically the traditional Atlantic-orientation of the Venezuelan armed forces toward the United States and Europe.

The Russian military industry is the most supportive. It has found in Venezuela a reliable customer in military materiel and a geopolitical ally. Russian military assistance to the FANB includes strategic advice and the provision of equipment such as aircrafts and helicopters, tanks and artillery units, two bombers with TU-160 nuclear capacity, Su-30Mk2 fighters, Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles, anti-aircraft missiles, and radars. Russia has also renewed Venezuela’s naval fleet. 

Cuba is a different case. Since the adoption of the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement between Cuba and Venezuela in 2000—which strengthened and expanded bilateral relations between the two countries—the role of the Cuban armed forces and intelligence services has increased exponentially, particularly within the FANB. According to Foresightcuba—a website that dedicated to the analyzing the island—Cuba’s military presence in Venezuela has swollen to 4,500 infantrymen organized in eight battalions of 500 troops each, plus a battalion stationed in Fuerte Tiuna, where the FANB are based. As the current crisis worsens, accusations over Cuba’s influence has increased with allegations of “Cuban agents of controlling the FANB and directing criminal activities,” as well as supporting repression efforts against demonstrators and dissidents.

Cuban influence is the greatest in Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), the security and intelligence services, practically controlled by the G-2—the generic name for the Cuban State Security Body. Information gathered by Maibort Petit, an investigative journalist based in New York City even details the list of Cuban troops that presumably serve in Venezuela.

However, the official secrecy practices in both Havana and Caracas add to the opacity and complexity when it comes to fact-checking the exact level of Cuban penetration in the Venezuelan military. Only the few revelations coming from military deserters allow us to access a more readable radiography on this alleged interference.

The future: A transition brokered by the military?

With the presidential legitimacy crisis in Venezuela, the focus has shifted to whom the FANB will ultimately support. Publicly, the military high command professes its support to Maduro. At the same time, the recent military defections after Guaidó’s rise, followed by the proposed Amnesty Law—have failed to produce the structural fractures necessary to break the FANB any time soon. 

Across the multiple scenarios that try to imagine Venezuela’s political future, it remains to be seen whether the FANB will act as a “Praetorian” body linked to the chavista project or as a key for a transition. It is also possible that the FANB will itself fall prey to political polarization, dividing the military establishment. 


Roberto Mansilla Blanco is an analyst at the Instituto Gallego de Análise e Documentación Internacional, IGADI (