Hunger pushing Maduro's troops to tipping point in Venezuela

Members of Maduro's military "suffering"

Caracas, Venezuela -- President Trump made little mention of the crisis unfolding little more than 1,000 miles from the Florida coast in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but he reiterated his backing of "the Venezuelan people and their noble quest for freedom." Mr. Trump condemned the "brutality" of the embattled regime of President Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington has declared an illegitimate leader.

The U.S. and almost 30 other nations, along with several regional blocs, have backed the shadow administration of the self-declared "interim president," opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But a standoff between the two sides is still playing out, with major world powers China and Russia backing Maduro.

The Venezuelan armed forces are the kingmakers in the epic power struggle. Everyone in the country is waiting for a sign that the generals are ready to desert President Maduro.

CBS News spoke to some members of the rank and file. At great risk to himself, a junior officer from Venezuela's National Guard, one branch of the military, agreed to talk to on condition that we obscure his identity and voice.

"What we need is Maduro to leave. We must overthrow this government," the masked guardsman said. 

It's the kind of treasonous talk Maduro doesn't want Venezuelans to hear. Without the armed forces' backing, his reign as leader is finished.

Humanitarian aid struggles to reach Venezuela as political crisis escalates

Pictures broadcast by state TV almost daily make it look as if the armed forces are still firmly on the president's side, but the truth is the troops -- most paid about $6 a month -- have had enough.

"Because they are tired," the guardsman said. "We are suffering just like the people are. My family, for example, my salary isn't even enough to buy food."

Asked if he can discuss the complaints back in the barracks, he said, "Yes, we talk," but only with people they trust. The higher ranking officers are not privy to such discussions. He said that's why he insisted on wearing a mask -- "to protect myself. We have no freedom of expression."

The fact is soldiers can't feed their families. Like millions of their fellow citizens, they're scraping along in an economy ruined by corruption, neglect and mismanagement.

According to BBC News, some of the military's leadership is expected to remain loyal to Maduro because they themselves would be at risk of losing money and could face human rights violations. To try and convince the troops and their commanders to defect to the opposition, Guaidó has offered them amnesty. But the rank and file will need more than that.

"In the National Guard, all we need is a high-ranking general to lead the way," the masked guardsman tells CBS News.

One Air Force general did defect in a video posted online at the end of last week, but there has been very little visible sign yet that other top commanders are ready to switch sides. There has been, however, a steady stream of mid-ranking officers defecting for months. They leave the country, to avoid being charged with treason.

Misery and hardship for Venezuela citizens amid political turmoil

Off the record, we hear from military families that the rank and file are ready to flip, but they would be arrested if they breathed a word of it. Regular army soldiers have been confined to their barracks, not allowed any contact with the outside. No cell phones are permitted on bases, and no family visits are allowed. Many of the troops may not even know what's going on; the extent of the international condemnation of Maduro, or the recent huge demonstrations. 

The next big test for the armed forces will come as soon as this weekend, when humanitarian aid sent by the U.S. arrives on Venezuela's border. Maduro has ordered the army not to let it in. The national guardsman told CBS News there's every chance they won't obey that order.  

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."