Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Reasons for a Recall Election on Chavez
III- No more territorial security
Monday 17, November 2003

The relationship of Chavez with the armed forces has been a complex one. A Lieutenant Colonel in 1992, his failed coup attempt ended his military career. Since then he has tried to make up for the lost time. As president, and commander in chief, he used the constituent assembly to concentrate in the hands of the president the military promotions to the ranks of Colonel and General. As a President, he started the famous social program, Plan Bolivar 2000, that he put in the hands of the Army. With that program, he learned how to distribute money to the armed forces and buy loyalties. Finally, after the failure to unseat him in 2002, Chavez was in position to effectuate a major purge in the armed forces, supposedly completing his take over. Lately, the violent ways the National Guard has been using against civilians could lead us to believe that he is a hair away to use the armed forces, if not to grab power out right, at least to block the recall election effort against him long enough until he can reverse his poll numbers.

How was this possible? What has happened to the Venezuelan armed forces?

First we have to realize that the Venezuelan Armed forces like those of many a country are some kind of social program that allows for kids from lower classes to climb a step on the social ladder. Nothing really wrong about that. For example, the US does that without admitting it and nobody would question the importance of the army there, and its loyalty to the system. But the US has also West Point, a long tradition of wars and peace, a strong civilian control. In Venezuela, the Army tradition was formed in the guerilla warfare of our troubled XIX century until Juan Vicente Gomez put an end to it in the 1920ies by creating a real army and making it a professional corp. Until Gomez, what passed as an army made and unmade presidents. Since Gomez, only the 1945-1958 decade saw the army holding political pre-eminence.

Chavez is issued from that XIX tradition, much more than the late XX century. In truth the role of the army in the last quarter of the XX century was less than stellar. Having defeated the leftist insurgency of the 60ies, a tight staff became soon a bloated bureaucracy that had no real enemies to worry about. Still, the formal structure was maintained and the superior echelons of the army were a guarantee of stability as it demonstrated in 1989 and 1992 [1]. This is probably why Chavez did not forgive the army, that the lower echelons lead a “pro people” coup in 1992 and that the higher echelons remained for institutions, corrupt and bloated perhaps, but behind representative democracy anyway.

The Venezuelan Armed forces are composed by the Aviation, the Navy, the Army and the National Guard. Under Chavez, a paratrooper from the Army, the first two components have quickly lost importance. Chavez has compelled himself to secure and bind his Alma Mater of sorts, the foot soldiers. There is not a single parade he misses, not a single foot soldier pay increase he forgets, and even earlier, not a uniform he would not wear, no matter how ridicule he looked in it.

The only possible real enemy of Venezuela is Colombia. Any other enemy has to sail the Caribbean or cross impenetrable jungles and mountains, very far from its bases. The obvious sympathies of Chavez for the Colombian guerilla movements, even if constantly denied officially, are now for all to see. The Army, supposedly in charge of border defense has become the benign supervisor of guerilla crossing back and forth into Venezuela, seeking shelter from the Colombian armies. Even the drug traffic role of the Army seems to have become just for show. Instead, the army is occupied setting field hospitals to treat lower classes, or distribute food, cheap to free, to the downtrodden. That would be OK but it has become common knowledge that the Army does that much less proficiently than the public services previously in charge of these very same programs (under other names, less pretentious than Bolivar 2000). And it does that with at least as much corruption as before.

The National Guard story is even sadder. Contrary to National Guard elsewhere this one is a real part of the Armed Forces, to be used for internal security purposes ranging from riot control to flooding rescue operations. Chavez quickly realized that the National Guard was the ticket. Now you can find the National Guard everywhere tight control is required, and trusted military needed, be it in governmental ministries, entry customs at ports and airports, or checking out items traded in many a social plan. The possibilities of graft for the National Guard have become truly awesome for the not so few officers that seemingly have had not many scruples in cashing in the Bolivarian Piñata.

But just as modern Faust, Chavez is cashing in his permissiveness. The one component of the Armed Forces that has accepted all sorts of dirty jobs is the National Guard. A couple of weeks ago Nelson Rivera has dissected in fascinating articles for El Nacional the reasons for the deeds of the National Guard, and the deeds themselves [2]. His conclusion is that the National Guard is days form shooting on the opposition marches. A few weeks ago I did translate the brilliant articles from Milagros Socorro on the Los Semerucos evictions of PDVSA workers[3]. That particularly shameful fascistic episode has gained the National Guard a new epithet appearing in the press without really anyone sensing the horror it implies: “Guardia Nazi-onal”. Too many people writing these days.

When during the December-January strike we saw a general of the National Guard Acosta Carles seize gas transport vehicles or emitting the eructation that went around the world from drinking warm soda in an illegal seizure of private property, we should have started worrying. The barbaric violence of some recent acts of the National Guard is just a logical consequence of that.

But I have experienced this myself. I have seen the defiant National Guard officers on May 1 march, surrounding the legislative palace, looking more like asking for a fight than preserving public order. I have seen in a street of San Felipe a truck with half a dozen of National Guard soldiers selling some stuff to passer by, three of them making sure that none would get too close from the truck, say, to take a picture or ask questions. This on a Saturday morning, far from any commercial area of San Felipe, and even further from a “social case” area where an army distribution would not have been out of place. I have seen the newly arrogance that they have when I was helping a colleague dealing with a minor infraction and watching myself being manipulated by an officer in order to condemn publicly my colleague. I learned that day what was the first step of the training to become concentration camp director. I also sensed that we were already in an undeclared military dictatorship.

Truly, today I think that the Armed Forces of Venezuela have ceased to be. They have been corrupted and we should just simply consider dispensing with them in a new Venezuela. The task of reconstruction is probably not worth it and it would be better to just create a small territorial force and proclaim our neutrality. But I am afraid that we do not have the guts to take the road of Costa Rica. Too many people in Venezuela used to talk of their “friends” in the armies that helped them solve “problems”. It is easy to get on drugs and the only thing that they want is probably to go back to the good old days when a “good” contact was better than a legal claim.

Whatever it is, any hope of regaining an honorable and perhaps useful army cannot be held as long as Chavez remains in office. He has reawakened the ghosts of our history by recklessly trying to make the Armed Forces the political party that he could not get or control as he wished. In his folly he probably thinks that fat and content generals might shoot without question protesting civilians. He is not aware that like a modern Frankenstein he has recreated conditions within the armed force that could lead us to a civil war, or at very least years of instability. And he had made us vulnerable to whoever will win the political settlement of Colombia, a winner that would have won a tough war while our generals were directing lettuce repartitions and cashing commissions at the banks.

Another reason for us on November 28 to brave the Army that should be guaranteeing the security of the signature collection. Are there enough good soldiers left to allow a peaceful civil population to claim back its future? Stay tuned.

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[1] In 1989 the armed forces had to be sent to the streets to control a generalized looting rampage caused by a package of tough economic measures. 1992 of course saw two military insurrections against the legal government.

[2] These articles shortly in Spanish in the document section.

[3] I translated it October 5, "Reconciliation", one of the 10 best articles written this year in Venezuela, if you ask me.

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