Venezuela's Military Needs to Get Out of Business

More likely to reap than sow.

Photographer: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela has more than 4,000 generals, compared with fewer than 50 in 1993. This kind of runaway inflation is every bit as pernicious as the economic variety, which also afflicts Venezuela -- in fact, they have to be addressed together.

Instead, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are hellbent on removing him from power, and they have collected some 2 million signatures on a recall petition. Maduro still has significant political support, and he will use his control of the executive and judicial branches to frustrate and delay that effort, which is unlikely to succeed this year. (If a recall succeeds in 2017, Maduro's vice president will step in to complete his term.) The opposition's credibility has already been hurt by its rash boast that it would throw out Maduro within six months after taking over the legislature in January.

QuickTake Venezuela's Revolution

It would be far better for the opposition to focus on winning votes for the election in 2019, when the current presidential term ends. That means uniting around a coherent plan to fix Venezuela's imploding economy -- an economy in which the military is increasingly involved and invested.

In February, Maduro put the military in charge of a new state oil and mining services company -- one of nearly a dozen military enterprises started under his administration. Active or former officers head about one-third of Venezuela's ministries and govern nearly half its 23 states. Service members have gotten big raises; preferential access to housing, cars and food; and promotions. Officers have won lucrative contracts, exploiting currency controls and subsidies -- selling cheap gasoline to Venezuela's neighbors at enormous profit, for instance.

One way to put the military back in the box is to make clear that misdeeds will face consequences. The U.S. is building cases against officers implicated in Venezuela's burgeoning drug trade. It has also targeted a handful of officials with asset freezes and visa bans for engaging in political violence and acts of public corruption. Leading the charge would only validate Maduro's anti-Yanqui narrative, so the U.S. should quietly make clear that there's plenty of room left on the targeted sanctions list and that it will publicize credible information of corruption, criminality and abuse.

The good news is that support for Chavismo is crumbling both from without and within. The U.S. opening to Cuba has erased a once-popular leftist talking point. Argentina's changed leadership has stepped up criticism of Venezuela, which may lose another friend if Brazil's Workers' Party loses power.  

Venezuelans are right to hold Maduro responsible for his economic mismanagement, which has resulted in blackouts, two-day government workweeks and life-threatening shortages of medicines. But kicking the president out of office will not by itself end Venezuela's economic hardship and political dysfunction. That will also require getting the military out of business and back into its barracks.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.