WASHINGTON — Embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has surrounded himself with bodyguards from Cuba to ensure protection from possible disenchanted elements of his military, Pentagon officials told Congress Thursday.
Those bodyguards are in place even though U.S. intelligence has not detected any fracture in the Venezuelan military’s support for Maduro, the officials said.
The observations were shared by Adm. Craig Faller, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, who joined Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Cuban guards that completely surround (Maduro) seem to have a grip on the top level (of government),” Fuller said.
The U.S. and other nations say that Maduro won the presidency in a tainted election. They support the head of the Venezuelan national assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim president until new elections are held.
Fuller said sanctions against the Maduro government “have not seen the desired result (of a) transition to a democratic government.”
Nor have the sanctions led to any cracking in the ranks of the military, even though most of its members suffer from the same shortages of food and other necessities as with much of Venezuela’s population, Fuller said. “The rank-and-file are starving just like their population,” he said.
Despite that, Fuller cautioned that the military still is a concern.
“Nothing has changed,” he told committee members. “Certainly there has been readiness aspect of their military (affected). It is a degraded force but it is still a force that is loyal to Madura and that makes it dangerous.”
On Wednesday, troops loyal to Maduro used a fuel tanker and cargo trailers to close a bridge linking Venezuela and Colombia to prevent humanitarian aid sent by the U.S. to be distributed, according to news reports.
Fuller also said that the Russian military has increased flights into Venezuela but that the Pentagon does not have clarity as to what that support entails. “We are looking for evidence on how that will play out,” Fuller said. “It’s hard to say what the Russians are up to.”
Fuller also said the Chinese are involved in supporting the Maduro government through less obvious methods. “China is there and is involved in cyber in ways that are absolutely not helpful for a democratic outcome.”