Bribes Offered to Key Officers to Topple Chavez

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Dec 21 02:37:01 MST 2002

Venezuelan Opposition Solicits Key Officers
Payments Offered To Topple Chavez

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 21, 2002; Page A01

MARACAY, Venezuela -- As gasoline, food and patience run low in
Venezuela's punishing 19-day-old national strike, President Hugo
Chavez's most ardent political opponents have begun making private
appeals to key military officers for help in toppling his
four-year-old government, the officers said.

The discreet contacts with military officers, pressing them to
intervene, represent a significant shift for civilian opposition
leaders. Since the current strike began, they have called for the
military to stand back and allow the political standoff to be settled
through negotiations. And in public, that hasn't changed.

The private approaches to officers were apparently spurred by the
failure of massive street demonstrations and a paralyzing oil strike
to persuade the twice-elected Chavez to resign or accept early
elections. With the threat of violence and food shortages rising, one
high-ranking general said he has been offered "hundreds of thousands
of dollars" to move against Chavez and bring an end to the crisis.

The appeals are likely to have little effect without a strong burst
of fresh violence or more extreme economic chaos, according to active
duty and dissident military officers, as well as political analysts
here. Since April, when he was briefly ousted in a coup led by a
group of generals and admirals, only to return a few days later,
Chavez has purged nearly half the senior officer corps, placed
longtime friends and allies in key combat and intelligence commands
and spent more time with troops and in military academies explaining
his political program.

"Those who came forward against him in April and expressed themselves
as opponents have been retired, and that dealt with quite a few of
them, some of whom were the true leaders of their respective
branches," said Anibal Romero, a professor specializing in military
affairs at Simon Bolivar University. "He has also done his homework
on indoctrination. He has, it seems, been able to convince some
younger officers that he is fighting for the poor, against corruption
and the rest of what he proclaims."

In this garrison town 90 miles west of Caracas, the capital, those
changes have solidified Chavez's grip on the army's Fourth Armored
Division, the country's biggest and best-equipped combat unit. It was
within this 12,000-member unit that a "counter-coup" emerged two days
after Chavez was removed on April 11, raising the threat of
troop-against-troop violence and collapsing the interim government
put into place by the coup leaders.

Of the eight senior officers who led the counter-coup, two died days
later in a helicopter accident. The remaining six have been named to
such key posts as commander of the army, commander of the navy,
director of military intelligence, the navy's inspector general and
chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Gen. Raul Baduel, a
Tao-practicing paratrooper who was the first senior officer to
declare himself against the coup, was named commander of the Fourth
Armored Division.

Taken together, those appointments and other changes Chavez has made
in smaller infantry and armored units critical to any coup have
strengthened his hold over the military's most important elements as
he strives to ride out this latest challenge to his rule.

In recent weeks, Baduel said he has received "hundreds of calls,"
including some from dissident generals and members of the civilian
opposition, urging him to act. He said one dissident general called
him before the strike began and said that "there would be many
deaths" over the course of the protest.

"There have been calls, even propositions from a very high level of
an economic nature, that at this point have reached hundreds of
thousands of dollars, so that I, to put it elegantly, would intervene
with the president so that the president understands he has to
resolve the situation with his resignation," Baduel said in an
interview, as Gregorian chants and incense smoke wafted through his

Reflecting the delicacy of the issue in a country still embarrassed
by April's abortive coup, Carlos Fernandez, president of the
country's largest business federation and a leader of the civilian
opposition group known as the Democratic Coordinator, denied that
anyone from the group had called Baduel, at least not with
authorization. "We have approved nothing like this," Fernandez said.
"We are not involved in that at all."

Chavez's grip on the military represents his most important defense
against a future coup as Venezuela, after a year of intense political
conflict, continues a slow descent into economic turmoil and street
unrest. "I don't have big worries [about the military]," Chavez said
in a recent interview, "but, yes, I have worries because of the
psychological campaign" he says is being conducted against him by the
opposition-controlled media.

Gasoline supplies are nearly exhausted because of the oil strike, and
another protest march Friday brought hundreds of thousands into the
streets of Caracas demanding the president's resignation. Nearly
identical events preceded Chavez's ouster in April. A national
strike, including a shutdown of the country's lifeblood oil industry,
prompted a march on the presidential palace that ended with 19 people
dead and Chavez's arrest.

At the time, the Bush administration signaled tacit endorsement of
the coup, swiftly promising to work with a government put in place by
the plotters. This time, U.S. officials, at least in public, have
repeatedly voiced support for a constitutional solution. Pentagon
officials have said they are telling counterparts in Caracas to stay
in their barracks.

Economic distress is deeper today than in April, but this time the
military has offered public support for the government and worked on
the president's behalf.

Chavez has deployed 3,000 troops to restart the oil industry by
protecting gas stations, escorting tanker trucks and retaking tanker
ships whose crews have joined the strike. National guard troops have
been deployed to disperse opposition protests, orders they have
carried out swiftly. Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya, the army's commanding
general and one of the officers who participated in the April
counter-coup, this week called the strike an "aggression against the
survival of the state in the camouflage of civic protest and
legitimate political action." He also ordered every soldier to carry
a copy of the constitution.

Chavez, a former officer, has had a complicated relationship with the
80,000-member armed forces, the institution he knows best and admires
most. The son of teachers in the southern state of Barinas, Chavez
chose the military for a free education. He attended the military
academy at Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas, where he would be taken decades
later following the coup, and fell in among a group of officers
agitating for political change.

Those activities surfaced in February 1992 when Chavez, then a
lieutenant colonel commanding a paratroop battalion here,
participated in a failed coup against then-President Carlos Andres
Perez. Although his former comrades in arms blame him for the
failure, Chavez emerged as a political star, declaring brashly in a
television appearance on his way to a two-year jail term that the
coup attempt was meant as a blow against corruption that had crippled
this country of 23 million people.

Promising a "social revolution" for Venezuela's poor majority on his
election as president six years later, Chavez turned to the military
for help in carrying out its most extreme elements. He chose
like-minded generals and colonels for key civilian posts and put
lower-ranking soldiers to work building public housing, supplying
rural markets and working on country roads and bridges.

Those moves politicized the ranks, opening an ideological breach
between the officer corps and the troops, who have humbler roots. The
navy and the air force, the smallest military branches, are
traditionally run by officers from the urban elite and were
particularly divided. The primary leaders of the April coup emerged
from those services, and today the merchant marine, a branch of the
navy, is playing a key role in the protest by keeping Venezuela's
fleet of oil tankers at anchor.

But Chavez has appointed two allies to the navy's most important
jobs. In addition, analysts said, the command changes he has made in
the army have minimized the importance of any lingering dissent
within the smaller branches. Of the 600 senior and mid-level officers
dismissed or left jobless by a round of promotions in July, most came
from the army, which accounts for half the military's overall troop

Among those displaced were Gen. Enrique Medina Gomez, who was
military attache in Washington at the time of the coup and now is the
highest-ranking of 127 dissident officers occupying Plaza Francia in
a wealthy eastern Caracas neighborhood. Medina said the dissident
officers, including some of those who were implicated in the April
coup, have "channels to the majority of units" in the armed forces.

"Right now the ranks are confused. They don't know how to act,"
Medina said. "But, of course, there are small groups that support
Chavez at all levels. The president has radicalized the situation,
though, and this could lead to conflict within days."

Chavez has also made changes lower in the ranks, where his own coup
attempt emerged. He has named loyal officers to head the Ayala
armored battalion and the Bolivar infantry battalion in Caracas,
called "coup commands" because of the essential role they would play
in any move against the presidential palace. Commanders picked by
Chavez also head the army garrison in Maracaibo, a northwestern city
at the heart of the oil industry, and the national guard garrison in

Baduel, who was one class behind Chavez at the military academy,
headed the 3,200-member 42nd Brigade of paratroops at the time of the
April coup and helped organize the military operation that rescued
Chavez from prison on the island of La Orchila. When he elevated
Baduel, Chavez also named his secretary, Gen. Pedro Centeno, to
command the former paratroop brigade.

But other important commands have not been remade to the same extent,
including those in Carupano and Puerto Cabello.

And pressure has been mounting on the military to act. "Chavez knows
from personal experience the military can never be trusted," Romero
said. "He knows you never know."


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