The Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela and Regime Security: Perspectives from the Inside-Out

Caracas (Venezuela), March 5, 2014. The Foreign Minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, participated in the commemoration of the death of Commander Hugo Chávez Frías. Photo: Xavier Granja Cedeño / Ecuador Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In her book The Dictator’s Army, Caitlin Talmadge describes the contrast between militaries that condition themselves to fight conventional wars against external adversaries and those that emphasize coup-proofing techniques to neutralize internal uprisings.[1] She states that different regimes, however, may not typically face a clear-cut choice between the selection of one type of military or the other. Rather, a regime may confront both internal and external threats and face the difficulty of developing a military that best focuses on the most proximate threat to the ruling government.[2]

The dilemma presented by Talmadge bears some resemblance to the issue currently facing Venezuela’s military, the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB). The Venezuelan military continues to support the government of Nicolás Maduro in the standoff between his government and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, protecting the Bolivarian regime from its domestic enemies.[3] In addition, the regime’s leaders have frequently pointed to the prospect of a U.S. invasion of Venezuela and called on the military to carry out an “anti-imperialist popular war,” highlighting some inclination towards an externally-oriented mission.[4] However, the current internal orientation could compromise the FANB’s ability to carry out missions related to external defense, raising questions over the military competence of the FANB and its roles and influence in the midst of the Venezuela crisis.

Based on the framework of authoritarian military effectiveness outlined by Talmadge, it appears that the FANB more closely resembles an anti-coup military rather than a conventional one. The Bolivarian regime’s leaders consistently associate the FANB with the defense of Venezuela from outside aggressors and import military equipment from Russia and China to shape the FANB as a modern, conventional force. However, Venezuela’s economic stagnation and the top-down structure of the FANB largely contradicts this purported image of a stable force of national defense.

Venezuelan military spending in current US dollars, as well as this amount as a percentage of the country’s GDP, has largely tapered off in recent years.[5] The reduction in these expenditures can largely be attributed to the overall economic crisis that has affected the country, hindering the Maduro regime’s ability to procure new equipment, train personnel, and maintain existing weapons systems.[6] According to an International Crisis Group investigation, only two to four of Venezuela’s 23 Russian-manufactured Sukhoi aircraft are fully operational, underscoring ongoing issues with maintenance.[7]

The economic crisis preventing procurement and maintenance of the FANB’s military equipment emanates from broader mismanagement and corruption within Venezuela. Ironically, part of this corruption stems from the allocation of critical economic industries to military officers by the regime in the hopes of securing their allegiance. The Maduro regime has given the FANB control of a wide array of industries ranging from precious metals to ports and customs. In addition, the FANB also manages four military-designated firms in banking, air transport, television, and agriculture.[8] In many cases, military overseers have little to no experience in the industries they manage and rely on equally unskilled employees in these areas, lowering productivity.[9]

Economic mismanagement and decay have played a significant role in the designation of the FANB as an internally-oriented military. The inability of the FANB to upgrade or maintain advanced weaponry acquired from its benefactors in Russia and China reflects a self-inflicted act of sabotage. If the FANB cannot maintain these systems due to its own complicity in the Maduro regime’s economic corruption, then it deprives itself of conventional capabilities such as air-defense that are necessary for a war of external defense. In addition, because many FANB officers manage economic industries in roles that sit outside their traditional remit, these activities degrade military readiness and prevent the armed forces from focusing solely on defense.

With regards to these military leaders, the saturation of the FANB with thousands of officers also renders the Venezuelan military an internally-focused force. According to Lieutenant Colonel Carlos José Montiel López, a military defector, this trend of saturation largely began in the immediate wake of Hugo Chávez’s ascension to power in Venezuela, when the socialist leader added 800 generals to the military’s command structure in 1999.[10] Venezuela now has more than 2,000 generals and admirals both retired and active, which contrasts starkly with less than one thousand in the U.S. military.[11] Given that there are 123,000 active personnel in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, this ratio between officers and enlisted personnel is significant and points to a top-heavy military.

Talmadge states that two of the requirements for an internally-oriented, coup-proof military are a highly centralized command structure and inwardly-facing intelligence organizations that monitor subordinates’ loyalties.[12] The FANB’s officer-heavy makeup clearly aligns with the first criterion, while the existence of the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) satisfies the second. The DGCIM, established with the support of Cuban security operatives, is a Venezuelan intelligence agency that suppresses dissent with the FANB. The organization routinely detains and tortures suspects accused of disloyalty to the Maduro regime and deters potential defectors from leaving the FANB to support Guaidó.[13]

These characteristics largely reflect the Maduro regime’s suspicion towards the FANB despite its dependence on the military’s support to maintain its rule over Venezuela. The constant paranoia regarding defections and the military’s potential as a source of opposition ensures that the Bolivarian regime invests substantial time and resources to maintain checks on the FANB. This rigid oversight paralyzes the FANB’s development as a military force committed to a wide assortment of missions and relegates it to a role as the regime’s personal security force.

Although the FANB recently conducted military exercises involving all service branches and civilian militias in a simulated defense of Caracas from external invasion,[14] such exhibitions do not change the reality that the FANB is still an internally-oriented force. These exercises attempt to build popular confidence in the regime’s ability to defend Venezuela. However, the current features of the FANB indicate that internal defense against domestic dissent, rather than an actual invasion by external aggressors, ranks as one of the highest priorities for the regime’s leaders in terms of their own security.


[1] Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 13-18

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] Nan Tian and Diego Lopes da Silva, “The Crucial Role of the Military in the Venezuelan Crisis,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2, 2019,

[4] Brian Ellsworth, Mayela Armas, “Special Report: Why the Military Still Stands by Venezuela’s Beleaguered President,” Reuters, June 28, 2019,

[5] See “Military Expenditure (% of GDP)- Venezuela, RB,” World Bank, accessed February 16, 2020, and “Military Expenditure (Current USD)- Venezuela, RB,” World Bank, accessed February 16, 2020,

[6] (2020) Chapter Eight: Latin America and the Caribbean, The Military Balance, 120:1, 439, DOI: 10.1080/04597222.2020.1707970

[7] “Venezuela’s Military Engima,” International Crisis Group, Crisis Group Latin America Briefing No. 39, September 16, 2019,

[8] Francine Jácome, “Los Militares en la Política y la Economía de Venezuela,” Nueva Sociedad, March-April 2018,

[9] “Nicolás Maduro: Corruption and Chaos in Venezuela,” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, August 6, 2019,

[10] Emilie Sweigart, “Wiretaps and Conspiracies: An Inside Look At Venezuela’s Military,” Americas Quarterly, December 17, 2019,

[11] “Special Report: Why the Military Still Stands by Venezuela’s Beleaguered President.”

[12] Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army, 16-17.

[13] Angus Berwick, “Special Report: How Cuba Taught Venezuela to Quash Military Dissent,” Reuters, August 22, 2019,

[14] Manaure Quintero and Efrain Otero, “Venezuela Holds Military Exercises as Maduro Attempts to Show Force,” Reuters, February 15, 2019,

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