(CNN) — Venezuelan army defectors are calling on the Trump administration to arm them, in what they call their quest for “freedom.”
Former soldiers Carlos Guillen Martinez and Josue Hidalgo Azuaje, who live outside the country, told CNN they want US military assistance to equip others inside the beleaguered nation. They claim to be in contact with hundreds of willing defectors and have called on enlisted Venezuelan soldiers to revolt against the Maduro regime, through television broadcasts.
“As Venezuelan soldiers, we are making a request to the US to support us, in logistical terms, with communication, with weapons, so we can realize Venezuelan freedom,” Guillen Martinez told CNN.
Hidalgo Azuaje added: “We’re not saying that we need only US support, but also Brazil, Colombia, Peru, all brother countries, that are against this dictatorship.”
The appeal came as US national security advisor John Bolton on Sunday warned the Maduro government that violence against Venezuela’s political opposition—or against its leader and self-declared president Juan Guaidó—would be met with stern reprisals.
Bolton also appealed to the Venezuelan military to assist in the smooth transition of power from Maduro to Guaidó, whom the US has recognized as the legitimate head of state.
American officials have repeatedly warned that no options are off the table, in terms of US intervention.
The defectors — more than a dozen of whom appeared in one recent broadcast — say that many rank and file soldiers share ordinary Venezuelans’ fury at hyperinflation, food scarcity and economic mismanagement that has turned one of South America’s richest petro-states into an impoverished wreck.
But despite repeated appeals, the group has seen limited success in inspiring a military revolt. A single unit rose up in Cotiza on January 21; its members were swiftly arrested.
Angry junior officers
Venezuela’s top brass have shown unflinching loyalty to Maduro, with their declarations in support of his regime airing in a loop on state television. Defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez has said that Venezuelan soldiers would “die” for their government.
The defectors showed CNN Whatsapp groups, through which they claim to reach thousands of angry junior officers and soldiers. They said they were working to bring various disgruntled factions together into a cohesive group.
They flatly reject any suggestion of a broader US military intervention in support of Guaidó. “We do not want a foreign government [to] invade our country,” Hidalgo Azuaje said. “If we need an incursion, it has to be by Venezuelan soldiers who really want to free Venezuela.”
Pressure on the Venezuelan military will mount this week, as opposition leader Juan Guaidó has called for demonstrations on Wednesday and Sunday. The opposition is encouraging its followers to pressure soldiers they know into defecting.
CNN got a rare glimpse of the internal difficulties of dissent in the army, when we met and discussed the idea of mutiny with an enlisted soldier in an underground parking lot in Caracas. He asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“There are soldiers in every unit that are willing to rise up in arms,” he told CNN. “They are preparing themselves and learning from past mistakes. They are waiting for the right moment, so they can hit even harder that people feel it.”
He claimed some units have weapons and ammunition that have gone missing and may have been taken to help foment an uprising.
“Past operations have failed because the higher-ranking officers were against it. They still control every area, and if an uprising happens, it’s swiftly neutralized,” he said.
He acknowledged the messages sent by defectors from outside Venezuela, and said they were “very positive.”
“Somehow they give us hope,” he said. “They are outside Venezuela, but feed our soul. They inspire us and raise the military’s self-esteem.”