[Marxism] Chavez changes role of Venezuelan forces

Fred Fuentes fred.fuentes at gmail.com
Sun Dec 7 08:36:29 MST 2008

Chavez changes role of Venezuelan forces
Leader creating armed militias under his control
South America Bureau

Dec. 6, 2008, 5:31PM
CARACAS, VENEZUELA — As President Hugo Chavez launches another
campaign to abolish term limits and rule Venezuela until at least
2019, he counts on a loyal and powerful partner: the armed forces.

His military made headlines this month conducting a three-day exercise
with Russian warships in the Caribbean Sea. But on the mainland, a
more lasting transformation is under way: Chavez is converting the
armed forces into a revolutionary corps at the service of the

Chavez is wary of the professional army, which took part in a 2002
coup against him. He has watered down the Defense Ministry, created
parallel institutions under his direct control, and trained and armed
militias said to number more than 1 million men and women who answer
only to him. He also has indoctrinated the officer corps with the
notion that the military is a key instrument for pursuing his brand of
left-wing nationalism inspired by the South American independence
leader Simon Bolivar.

The military's new motto, which officers now must shout when saluting,
is "Fatherland Socialism or Death!" The military even has a new name,
the Bolivarian Armed Forces.

"Chavez is forming a Praetorian guard," said Rocio San Miguel,
president of Citizen Control, a Caracas-based organization that
analyzes military affairs. The armed forces "are now the armed branch
of the revolution."

Defending fatherland
Many of these changes — as well as $4 billion in purchases of
warplanes, combat helicopters, assault rifles and equipment from the
Russians since 2005 — are portrayed by Chavez and his generals as
necessary to defend the fatherland. They have repeatedly accused the
United States of preparing an invasion to seize control of the
country's oil reserves.

Borrowing from the concepts of asymmetric war, or a confrontation
between the powerful and the weak, Chavez has spoken of an Iraq-like
scenario in which overwhelming military power would be offset by a
vast insurgency waged by a people's militia.

But rather than protecting the nation from the 82nd Airborne or other
external threats, San Miguel and other military experts believe that
the structural changes are mainly designed to protect the Venezuelan
leader from internal strife.

Calling on militias
Although Chavez remains popular after a decade in power, falling oil
prices, widespread government corruption and skyrocketing urban crime
rates have undermined his government. His supporters lost several key
mayoral and gubernatorial races in Nov. 23 regional elections.

New pockets of opposition could emerge as Chavez presses ahead with
plans for a referendum early next year to ban term limits, which would
allow him to run for re-election.

But in the event of some future citizen uprising or an officer revolt,
Chavez could call on thousands of militiamen, and women, to take to
the streets to defend his government.

"Chavez's plan to integrate militias into the military is a twofold
strategy," said a recent analysis by Stratfor, an Austin-based
intelligence firm. "Not only does it allow him a level of
politico-military control on the street level, but it also allows him
to own an entire wing of the military in the event that any
potentially unhappy generals seek to depose him."

Chavez, a former army paratrooper and coup leader himself, has spent
most of his presidency transforming the 130,000-troop military. He
promoted a new constitution in 1999 that gave soldiers, sailors and
airmen the right to vote and eliminated a provision stating the armed
forces were subordinate to civilian power.

Holding a grudge
But the watershed moment for Chavez was an army-backed uprising on
April 11, 2002, that briefly ousted him from power. Many observers say
the traumatic events radicalized Chavez who, once restored to power,
moved swiftly to gain more control over government institutions and
protect himself.

Some observers claim that he also holds a grudge against the air
force, which was key in foiling the 1992 coup led by Chavez against
President Carlos Andres Perez.

Chavez gradually undercut the military while building up the militias.
These part-timers are often jobless men and women or employees of the
state-run oil company or other government institutions.

Known as the Territorial Guard and the Military Reserves, they are
said to number more than 1 million, though only about 10,000 have
received arms and training.

Still, in the midst of a crisis, they could make up in quantity what
they lack in quality. During the 2002 uprising, a flood of angry
citizens who took to the streets helped to defeat the coup.

The militias answer to a national commander who has equal rank to the
defense minister. According to San Miguel, Chavez has even talked
about equipping the militias with their own tanks and warplanes.

"We train twice a month," said Juan Contreras, a longtime Chavez
activist and member of the reserves. "We have to be ready for a
confrontation and will give our lives for this cause that we believe

Loyal followers
To tighten his control over the traditional service branches, Chavez
has promoted officers known to be fervent revolutionaries and has
sidelined those more loyal to the institution than to the president.

He is constantly denouncing officers for plotting against him. True or
not, his accusations convey the message that Chavez and his
confederates are keeping close tabs on the generals, colonels and

The military gets involved in public works projects and
food-distribution programs that are closely identified with Chavez,
and dozens of former officers have been appointed to head ministries,
embassies and other institutions.

In defending the changes, Alberto Rojas Muller, a former general who
is now vice president of Chavez's United Socialist Party, said that
all armies promote the agendas of their governments.

The only difference in Venezuela, he said, is that it is openly acknowledged.

But there are inherent risks in mixing guns and politics.

For one thing, the image of the Venezuelan armed forces has suffered
with many people who now view officers as corrupt wingmen for Chavez.

Unknown sentiment
The great unknown in Venezuela is the true sentiment among the officer
corps. Few commanders are willing to criticize Chavez for fear of
losing their jobs. Caracas military analyst Domingo Irwin likened the
officer corps to an aircraft's black box because the contents are
revealed only after a catastrophe.

But Raul Baduel who stepped down as Chavez's defense minister last
year, said professionalism has very deep roots in the armed forces.

"These are transcendental changes that are happening," Baduel said.
"They pit the armed forces against their original mission" of serving
the nation as a whole.

john.otis at chron.com

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