Capitán Juan Carlos Caguaripano Scott, crisp in a military dress shirt, a clean white undershirt peeking through at his throat, sat square-shouldered in front of a Venezuelan flag and a plaque of the country’s war hero, Simón Bolívar. The captain of the Venezuelan National Guard placed both hands on the table and leaned forward toward the video camera. “I’ve been called to reflect, and I have been convinced of my duty as a humble Venezuelan. As a national guard member who loves this country and is worried about our future and our children,” he said, “there are sufficient reasons to break the silence.”
In the 12-minute video that went viral on social media soon after Scott posted it to YouTube (GOOG) on Apr. 29, he continued, “There are sufficient reasons to demand the resignation of the president, to free the political prisoners.” He accused the government of conducting “fratricidal war” and made a plea to the country’s generals. “Señores generales,” Scott said, “reflect, ask for forgiveness. We are in time to save the country. Tomorrow you yourselves could be victims.”
A military tribunal ordered Scott’s arrest on Thursday for his participation in a coup against President Nicolás Maduro, joining three generals from the air force and another captain of the national guard already accused of plotting against the state last month. The tribunal declared that Scott “operated in a clandestine plan” with the generals already arrested, as well as an individual operating under the pseudonym “El Llanero,” to “impede the army and disrupt the country’s peace.”
Last week the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that the right to peaceful protest under the Venezuelan constitution isn’t absolute, effectively making the ongoing demonstrations illegal and justifying the use of violence by military forces. As protests—legal or not—haven’t stopped, government efforts to control the streets are provoking increasingly negative public reaction. Soldiers have purportedly fired shotguns loaded with rubber bullets at point-blank range, causing severe injuries, in addition to robbing, raping, and detaining protesters, who for their part have been using Molotov cocktails. The cases of alleged torture are mounting. When a 12-year-old was shot and severely wounded by the national guard on April 26, fresh riots broke out around the country.
As the civilian death toll during the weeks of civil unrest rises to 41, Maduro’s control of the country’s armed forces has become more crucial than ever. But in the past few weeks, more than 30 military officials have been detained and denounced as plotters against the government, although few have been as outspoken as Scott in his call to arms. General Ángel Vivas, the former head of the Defense Ministry who has been defying arrest since early February, has continued to speak out against Maduro’s regime. An active user of social media, Vivas has taken to using Zello, a smartphone radio app, to broadcast his opinions on the state of the country.
But defiance in Venezuela comes with its own risks. Eliécer Otaiza, the ex-chief of intelligence, was found on Thursday shot dead in his truck and left in a wooded area outside Caracas. The former head of security for Chávez, he was involved in the failed military coup in 1992. The authorities have officially declared it a robbery—and in a country with 25,000 homicides last year, it may very well have been random violence. But Maduro himself said during a ceremony for Otaiza that in the context of the protests, there was “no such thing as casual coincidences.”
Following General Vivas’s example, Scott’s outspoken defection may be a harbinger of wider military discontent, a dawning realization in the ranks of the military that even their privileged status is tenuous in the face of public discontent, signaling a reluctance to continue escalating the civilian violence. As higher-level military officials continue to be brought before tribunals, the question remains: How long can President Maduro preserve his hold on power?