The Armed Forces as a Political Party: Chávez’s New ‘Geometry of Power’ (ARI)

The Armed Forces as a Political Party: Chávez’s New ‘Geometry of Power’ (ARI)

Theme: The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was convinced of the success of his constitutional reform proposal, prepared under the ley habilitante, or enabling law, which gave the Executive full powers to legislate in key areas. The new constitution, which was to establish unlimited presidential re-election, would have come into effect in 2008 if it had been approved by the 2 December referendum. One of the main reforms was to redefine the role of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales, FAN). The current 1999 constitution states that the FAN are a politically non-aligned professional institution. The idea was that they were to adopt a clearly political role: according to the new article, the Bolivarian Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Bolivarianas, FAB) were to ‘constitute an essentially patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist body’.

Summary: The totally one-party National Assembly unanimously approved the project which amends 33 of the 350 articles in the current constitution. To strengthen his power and authority, Chávez’s logic depends on limiting the parliamentary prerogatives and subordinating the civil parties that support the so-called Bolivarian Revolution. But as other previous plebiscitary regimes have shown, a Parliament conscious of legalising an usurpation of its powers is simply signing its own political death warrant. The politicisation of the Army, whose officers are now obliged to salute each other repeating political slogans copied from Castro’s regime, foreshadows the consolidation of a national security state where the Armed Forces will act as the true governing party. The new ‘geometry of power’ will allow the government to declare ‘special military regions’ with ‘strategic defence’ purposes. On his Sunday radio and television programme, ‘Aló, presidente’, Chávez has stressed that ‘military power is part of people power’ and its strengthening ‘the only way of preventing the empire from carrying out its threats against the revolution’. What is uncertain is whether all military personnel will be prepared to adopt the role they have been assigned. Latin American history shows that politicising the Army inevitably triggers plots and military sedition. Last July, during his farewell speech as Minister of Defence, a position he had occupied since June 2006, General Raúl Isaías Baduel did not finish with the cry of ‘Fatherland, socialism or death’, but rather ‘Almighty and everlasting God’.

Analysis: According to Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the newspaper Tal Cual, the constitutional reform is a ‘pre-totalitarian project’ seeking to control society and secure Chávez’s personal power with a strategy that strives for a certain degree of politically administrable conflict until achieving the most important objective of all: ‘The transformation of the FAN (National Armed Forces) into a political party’. That project was up and running from the outset. According to an article published in Tal Cual on 19 July, 2001, Chávez gave instructions to the Directorate of Military Intelligence to identify and classify FAN officers as ‘revolutionaries’, ‘institutionalists’ and ‘dissidents’ in order to decide who could be promoted and who should be subject to ‘ideologisation’ processes.

In September 2005, Chávez signed a defence law which converted the preservation of the Bolivarian Republic into a military mission and created a reserve force and territorial army who would answer directly to the President and ultimately train and supply arms to around 2.8 million Venezuelans for resistance operations against any internal and/or external aggression.

In an interview with the historian Agustín Blanco Muñoz in 1995, Chávez said that the Army, which ‘is supplied with soldiers from shanty towns, fields and the country in general’, must overcome ‘egotistical and corrupt high-ranking officers’ to build a community of class interests between the civilian and military population. In 2003, he harangued the soldiers that paraded in Fuerte Guaicaipuro: ‘You will have to decide where to point your guns, at the chest of the treacherous oligarchy or at the people of Venezuela’.

These soldiers, mostly active, now occupy positions of trust in state companies, services and autonomous and national institutes, government funds, foundations and special commissions. In the regional elections of October 2004, 14 of the 22 government candidates appointed by Chávez came from the ranks of the military. Lieutenant Colonel Herrera Jiménez, a retired officer from the National Guard, is National Director of the Federation of Bolivarian Civil-Military Fronts, responsible for ‘promoting the concepts of an armed nation and civil-military unity in Venezuela and the political and military integration of Latin America to accelerate economic and social development’.

In an interview in 2002 with the Chilean sociologist Martha Harnecker, Chávez said that without the military’s participation in the social area, his political plans would not have made any progress. ‘The order he gave them in 1999 was: 10 years ago we set out to massacre the nation [in the Caracazo disturbances in 1989, suppressed by the Army]. Now the enemy is death, hunger… This is how our objective was completed: with the civil-military alliance. The nation is to the Army like water is to fish. That is Mao’. Since 2000, within the framework of the Plan Bolívar, a social programme developed by the Army, leaders of the country’s most important garrisons have been coordinating a series of community service actions. Traditionally neglected towns and villages saw how soldiers arrived to provide them with medical services and provisions, help which had previously only arrived in election times.

In Caracas, in Fuerte Tiuna, there are public offices that deal with citizens demands for becoming beneficiaries of the so-called ‘missions’, social promotion projects which allow the government to maintain popular support through an increase in public spending on health, education and the establishment of a network of mass markets that function with parallel structures to state structures, within a party affiliation system.

Since there is a proliferation of public areas throughout the whole country where soldiers are social workers, these soldiers have become de facto political actors. The military’s influence is tangible across the board: from education, where pre-military education has been re-established in public and private schools, through to the food and agriculture Mission Mercal, governing food distribution in mass markets, and infrastructures, with bodies responsible for building roads and public housing. Chávez has given soldiers all types of perks to guarantee their loyalty: rapid promotions to generals in chief (this had not existed since 1941), medals, payments, social protection, housing and other privileges. The surplus of high-ranking officers, the result of more promotions than retirements, has been aimed at civil bureaucracy posts and the foreign service.

Purchasing armaments and salary increases of around 30% a year for all ranks are an essential part of the plan: according to some versions of the Venezuelan press, ‘technical-military co-operation’ with Russia over the last two years has resulted in around US$3 billion being spent on purchasing 500 helicopters, 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter planes and 100,000 AK-103 rifles.

The project also has a foreign dimension. In Habla el comandante (1995), Chávez spoke of the eventual creation of a Confederation of Latin American states where regional Armed Forces would be in charge of economic, social and political development, as well as being responsible for the continent’s defence and security.

This entire process has been accompanied by the dismantling of institutions designed to control and supervise military activities which, since the 1960s, had restricted the involvement of officers and soldiers in activities outside national defence. Chávez’s reforms have removed legal limitations to the military’s political activities and parliamentary intervention in promotions.

The Velasco Alvarado Model
Since his time as a young officer in the Army, Chávez formed, with other soldiers, various clandestine groups under different simultaneous or successive names. In 1983, he got in contact with the ex-guerilla Douglas Bravo who, after the failure of the armed struggle supported by Fidel Castro in Venezuela in the 1960s, reached the conclusion that the socialist revolution could only triumph with the support of the FAN. According to his Venezuelan biographers Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Cristina Marcano, these influences can be attributed to his admiration for the Peruvian nationalist general Velasco Alvarado (1968-75). Velasco’s influence has remained in his government. In his current constitutional reform project, five different types of ownership have been established: public, social, group, mixed and private. And private will not be untouchable. Chávez said the reforms will be the final ‘death blow’ to capitalism. During Velasco’s regime there were up to six different types of ownership: joint management, self-management, distribution of industry profits, worker participation in management of state companies and agrarian cooperativism. Social ownership companies belonged to the workers as a group, but they did not have individual or group ownership rights; ie, they were conceptual rather than specific owners. Velasco’s revolutionary state created a body for appointing and dismissing judges.

Similarly, in 2004, government members of the Venezuelan National Assembly approved the organic law of the Supreme Court of Justice increasing the number of judges from 20 to 32, which Chávez exploited to create a majority of judges in favour of the government. So there was no doubt over the new profile, the presiding judge stated: ‘Any judge that issues a verdict against the revolutionary principles will be dismissed and his decision overridden’.

In Velasco’s Peru, the Army became an autonomous pillar of the state: thanks to its vertical organisation, centralised command, organisational experience and nationalism, it became the revolution’s driving force. Civilians could be travelling companions, provided they accepted their subordination. One of the collaborators defined the model precisely: ‘Velasco’s true political party was the Army’.

Venezuelan Praetorianism
Venezuelan history was a very apt breeding ground for this way of thinking: 67% of Venezuelan governments between 1830 and 1999 were led by people connected to the military, autocratic or praetorian world. Military dictators such as Antonio Guzmán Blanco, Juan Vicente Gómez, Eleazar López Contreras and Marcos Pérez Jiménez were responsible for disseminating their authorised version of the Bolivarian myth, which ended up being a fabrication to serve its authors. For López Contreras, for example, the Venezuelan Army was the heir to the nation, which meant it had the right to continue leading it.

The coup attempt in 1992 was yet another expression of recurrent praetorianism in the 20th century. According to the Venezuelan sociologist Domingo Irwin in El pretorianismo venezolano del siglo XXI, una perspectiva histórica, the current military leadership comes from the generation of 1992 coup participants. Some of them were forced to retire, but others managed to remain as active officers. Irwin pointed out a significant fact: there were high ranking officers who knew about the clandestine movements amongst their subordinates; they did not take part in these movements, but neither did they report them. This would explain the passivity of Army intelligence mechanisms to their activities.

Irwin does not discount infiltration of those services, but neither does he discount the fact that some higher-ranking officers might have tried to use the conspiratorial actions of the MBR-200, the group led by Chávez, for their own benefit. If this was the case, they hit the right buttons: the extreme wing of the MBR-200 managed to win successive electoral processes after 1998 due to the crisis of traditional political parties and the apathy of the voting population with 40% abstaining systematically in the elections.

In the government, ex-servicemen rebuilt bridges with officers who had remained active. At his swearing in as the new President, Chávez also received the position of Commander-in-Chief of the FAN (Revolutionary Armed Forces). Ironically, democracy gave the Army back its prominence. The 1999 constitution gave servicemen the right to vote (heading VII) and eliminated the article from the 1961 constitution that stated that the Army was subordinated to civil power.

The extension of FAN functions to homeland policy areas and the willingness of the President to give responsibilities to servicemen in public administration enabled the FAN to regain de facto control over the state.

The Failed Coup Attempt of 2002
On 11 April 2002, when confrontations between pro-government political forces and the opposition left dozens of people dead in the streets of Caracas, part of the military leadership, without overall troop command, demanded Chávez’s resignation. This was announced on television by the Inspector in Chief of the FAN, General Lucas Rincón Romero, on the morning of 12 April.

Public rejection to the announcements of the self-appointed provisional government of the businessman Pedro Carmona, who issued a decree practically dissolving the state’s democratic structure, led to the main officers in command of the forces to force the fall of the ephemeral and illegal government and reinstate Chávez’s government. Military bases in Maracay, where the main armoured, air and airborne forces of Venezuela are concentrated, never accepted Carmona’s government which, instead of seeking support from Army generals, appointed two admirals as Minister of Defence and head of the presidential guard, both of which lacked any authority among the officer corps.

Chávez accused the officers that supported the coup of vengeance for having lost control of military purchasing contracts and having been ousted in promotions. Initially, Army prosecutors ordered the detention of 58 officers, 24 of whom were generals and admirals. Those detained in the Army mainly came from logistics and service corps, which shows the success Chávez had in removing hostile officers from troop command positions. All these positions have since been occupied by younger, more reliable officers, many of whom were passing-out colleagues of Chávez at the military academy.

The next test would come with the general strike called by the opposition in December 2002 and which lasted until February 2003. According to declarations collected by Irwin, the military high command considered three options for dealing with the strike: remaining neutral, taking control or supporting the government unconditionally and helping it to regain control of the oil industry. The third option prevailed. During the strike, military police units and the National Guard were repeatedly used to confront demonstrators and the Directorate of Military Intelligence played a crucial role in monitoring opposition leaders. Military forces occupied metropolitan police stations in Caracas and oil installations and helped break the workers’ strike at the state oil company PDVSA.

When merchant navy tankers refused to continue operating, they were boarded by navy commandos and the government ordered the use of the navy to transport supplies from neighbouring countries. So the April coup allowed Chavez to expel military commanders. The failure of the general strike gave him full control of PDVSA, the nerve centre of the country’s economic power. After the strike, Chávez once again appointed military personnel as Defence Ministers.

In January 2005, General Melvin López Hidalgo, Secretary of the National Defence Council, which directly advises the President, told the journalist Daniela Esponja that the FAN were preparing for ‘post-modern conflicts or fourth generation wars and asymmetric conflicts’. In September of the same year, a manifesto titled Pensamiento Militar Venezolano 2005 was published in the national newspapers and on the Internet. In it, a group of generals from the Army and the National Guard declared that Venezuelan soldiers were preparing a ‘revolution opposing Anglo-Saxon American imperial world strategy’, for which it was necessary to implement a defensive strategy that included the participation of reservists and the territorial Army, which now has around 300,000 members, three times more than the FAN’s officers and troops. The second fundamental idea strengthened the first: the need for strong civil-military political leadership.

According to the newspaper El Nacional, 60% of reservists were unemployed in 2005. General Julio Quintero Vitoria, former head of the FAN’s unified command, was appointed Commandant General of the Army’s Reserve Forces and of National Mobilisation, bodies that report directly to the President and which must be able to mobilise around 2 million men between the ages of 18 and 50 (organic law of the FAN), ie, 20 times the forces of the FAN.

Conclusions: Frederique Langue, a researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre in France, maintains in El retorno del pretorianismo venezolano that Chávez’s plans aim to create a ‘Bolivarian Revolutionary Army’, which would result in the disappearance of the Army in its current form and be succeeded by the Cuban model, under the slogan ‘total people’s national defence’.

In Latin America, only Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua, owing to revolutions which were really civil wars, abolished the military body of the old regime to replace it with a new Army created out of the revolutionary militias, whose only loyalty was to the new governing class. But those three countries (and their revolutions) were exceptional cases in the region’s history: there the political interventions and interference of the US meant national humiliation which undermined old Army institutions.

It is difficult for Chávez to achieve the same in Venezuela. The Peruvian case in the 1960s may be a guideline to what might happen to Chavism if the lessons of Velasco’s rule are not learned. When the economic model of the regime went into crisis, the political predominance of the military class in civil society started to take a costly political toll.

The rise of an increasingly organised civil opposition accelerated the emergence of hidden dissidence at the heart of the armed forces. Senior military leaders mostly agreed that excessive politicisation of their officers was endangering their corporate unity. The rapid and bloodless way in which Velasco was deposed by his Prime Minister, General Morales Bermúdez on the 29 August 1975 showed the fragility of the enthusiastic support for hasta la muerte (‘until death’) which the General liked to hear in popular meetings. After the coup, which argued the need for eliminating ‘selfishness and deviations’, Velasco left through the back door of the government building, opposite Desamparados Station, barely accompanied.

Something similar may be happening in the FAN. An example of these tensions was noticeable in the case of the substitution of the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in November 2006, when Vice-Admiral Armando Laguna refused to initially recognise his dismissal from the position and his replacement by Vice-Admiral Remigio Calvo Díaz. Cardinal Rosalío Castillo Lara, former head of the Synod of Venezuelan bishops, has caustically criticised his country’s military: ‘Some bribed and others intimidated, they have lost the apolitical and defensive spirit of the nation. Chávez wants to destroy the FAN and has almost destroyed it with corruption’.

William Izarra, ‘ideological leader’ of the Comando Maisanta (the organiser of Chávez’s political mobilisation), said that the transition phase had not yet finished: that the ‘revolutionary definition’ phase would begin in December if Chávez were to gain public support for the indefinite re-election project. In any case, military unity around Chávez is being put to the test once again.

Luis Esteban González Manrique
Independent international economy and policy analyst for ‘Política Exterior’ and ‘Dinero’