CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — He enlisted in Venezuela's National Guard to earn a ticket out of poverty. But little more than two years later, his monthly pay is worth only about $2, forcing him to moonlight at a tire shop, and he has put in for a discharge.
"I don't know what everybody else does to survive," said Ruben, a 21-year-old sergeant, who fearing retaliation agreed to speak about his situation only if his last name was not revealed. "If I don't get out of this, I'll starve to death."
Not even Venezuela's once-proud military is immune to the oil-rich country's deepening economic crisis of food shortages and skyrocketing prices, and while top commanders deny there is any discontent, analysts say thousands of soldiers are asking for honorable discharges or deserting their posts by simply walking away.
Since taking office after the death of Hugo Chavez, his mentor who installed Venezuela's socialist administration, President Nicolas Maduro has sought to lock in support from the armed forces by pampering troops with outsized bonuses and awarding loyal officers with top government posts.
He is counting on the backing of the military to ride out any turbulent reaction if he is declared the winner of Sunday's presidential election, which has been condemned by much of the international community for barring some of his leading critics from running.
But as Venezuela quickly goes broke and hyperinflation pulverizes the paychecks of civilians and soldiers alike, discontent is penetrating the barracks, raising doubts whether the troops will remain trustworthy as their stomachs growl.
With the opposition defeated and the economy worsening at the hand of the increasingly authoritarian government, many Venezuelans — as well as the Trump administration — are looking more to the military, which has historically stepped in as the calming hand during moments of political crisis.
Ruben, thin and downcast, spoke to The Associated Press after crossing the street from Caracas' sprawling Fort Tiuna after handing in his discharge papers, copies of which he still had in a manila folder under his arm.
He said he couldn't feed his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son on his National Guard pay. He sought work changing tires on days off, earning double the roughly $2 a month he takes home from the military. He said he plans to make the side job fulltime once he is discharged.
He's hardly alone.
On the Caribbean island of Margarita, soldiers in olive green uniforms and rifles slung over their shoulders openly wander the market each morning begging merchants for fruits and vegetables.
In the western city of Maracaibo, Ruth Bravo, 21, said she sent her husband into the army for food benefits so she and her two young children could eat. But such help seldom comes, forcing her to beg on the streets each day for survival.
Even the rations served in military mess halls have dramatically diminished in size and quality. To compensate, soldiers are often given leave several hours during the day to hunt for meals off base, several told the AP.
Soldiers once made up a privileged class at the height of Venezuela's oil boom under Chavez, who himself was a former tank commander. They had access to quality housing, cars and home appliances at subsidized prices.
But the largesse has dried up under Maduro, who has tried to compensate by giving top-ranking officers an even bigger slice of power. They head nearly half of Venezuela's ministries, including control of the primary food-supply program.
Most notably, six months ago Maduro named Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo to revive the state-run oil company, PDVSA, and its plummeting production though he had no previous experience in the industry.
The 150,000 men and women serving in Venezuela's military are now the lowest paid in Latin America, with monthly salaries worth only to $2 to $12, said Rocio San Miguel, a Caracas-based military analyst. Base pay for troops in Colombia begins at $75, while soldiers in Mexico earn $300 to start.
Nobody knows exactly how many soldiers have deserted. But San Miguel and other experts say they number several thousand.
In addition to the economic strains, many soldiers fear being deployed again to hold back masses of angry protesters calling for a new government. Experts say desertions surged in 2017 as the National Guard clashed with anti-Maduro protesters almost daily for four months, leaving more than 140 people dead and hundreds more injured and arrested.
There has been a spike in court martials. A handful of soldiers and officers were jailed in 2017 on suspicion of various crimes, yet 90 have already been arrested so far this year, experts say.
Aging, paunchy generals regularly flank Maduro in televised events in a show of strength, but in private they are more inclined to grumble about his leadership, said Alonso Medina Roa, a lawyer who defends some of the military detainees.
Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, who commands Venezuela's armed forces as minister of defense, announced plans in March to bolster conditions for soldiers struggling with economic challenges. But he denied there was widespread unrest in the ranks and ridiculed rumors of a brewing military coup.
"The Bolivarian armed forces won't be divided by anyone," he said, speaking at the nation's biggest base in the capital of Caracas.
Adm. Remigio Ceballos, head of the armed forces' strategic command, denied any mass exodus of soldiers, emphatically telling the AP: "Not at all, that's a lie."
Families of soldiers paint a far grimmer picture.
Odalys Bermudez, wife of a National Guard sergeant, said she relies on "miracles" to feed her four children aged 5 to 12. Some days, the gaunt 30-year-old borrows money from friends, or she sets up a makeshift shop outside her apartment near the military base in Maracay.
"I sell any little thing, whether it's ice cream or cookies," she said. "Anything I can get to fill the hole in my stomach."
Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn