Hours after the Venezuelan government announced the death of President Hugo Chavez, Rocio San Miguel, the director of the Venezuelan think tank Asociacion Civil Control Ciudadano, tweeted: “Mi mensaje a la FANB: el retorno al carril constitucional,” (“My message to the [Bolivarian Armed Forces]: Return to the constitutional road”). In the coming days and weeks, we will see a plethora of articles and commentaries discussing Chavez’s legacy for both his country and Latin America, since he first came to power in 1999. In addition, we will also undoubtedly read about the options that the transitional government, led by the National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, has in front of it. The crucial issue now becomes whether new presidential elections will be called for and who will be the winner. Nevertheless, apart from Cabello’s decisions regarding elections, the country’s future will be decided by the actions of the post-Chavez Venezuelan armed forces.
A decade of spending
As a former military officer himself,Hugo Chavezbecame known for indulging his armed forces, namely through purchasing large quantities of military equipment, particularly from Russia, over several years. For example, the Chavez government purchased Russian tanks, Sukhoi warplanes, AK-103 assault rifles and Dragunov sniper rifles. In January 2013, the Spanish defense news website Infodefensa.com reported the arrival of Russian howitzers to Venezuela. In addition, the country also purchased military aircraft from China and vessels from Spain for coastal patrolling.
Chavez’s goal of beefing up his armed forces seems to have been two-fold. On the one hand, such grandiose expenditures were a quick and easy way to ensure the loyalty of the military’s leadership. In addition, Hugo Chavez appeared to have an obsession with preparing his country for war, specifically a military operation initiated by the U.S., which the late Venezuelan president often referred to as “the empire.” The tense relations between Hugo Chavez and Washington were not his only security-related worry. In March 2008,Venezuela came close to an armed conflict with Colombia, then under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. The polemic situation emerged after Colombian security forces carried out a military raid in Ecuador against a camp ofFARC guerrillas, where some high level rebel leaders (including FARC chief Raul Reyes) were hiding. The problem was that Bogota did not inform Quito of this raid, which left Ecuador’s government to interpret the act as a violation of territorial sovereignty. In response to this situation, Hugo Chavez deployed his military to the border with Colombia as an indicator that he was ready to declare war on Bogota to protect his ally, Rafael Correa. Fortunately, the incident managed to diffuse itself and war was avoided.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a potential conflict with the U.S. either directly or via a proxy, such as Washington ally’s Bogota, seems to have been constantly in Hugo Chavez’s mind. He also created a national militia, with the goal of carrying out a guerrilla-style war against invading troops, should some inter-state conflict erupt. It seems clear that the Venezuelan military was the branch of the country’s government and society in general , which benefited the most from Hugo Chavez’s lengthy rule.
The April 2002 coup and beyond
The aforementioned precedent of Chavez’s generally favorable relationship with the army does not necessarily mean that he enjoyed the support and loyalty of all of his military. During theApril 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez from power, a number of dissident military officers were revealed to have supported the coup plotters and swore allegiance to the new government of President Pedro Carmona. Examples of these individuals included National Guard General Carlos Alfonso Martinez, fellow National Guard General Luis Alberto Camacho and Navy Rear Admiral Daniel Comisso Urdaneta. In the years that followed, fallouts and growing discontent with Chavez and his policies increased the number of high ranking military officials that defected and joined the ranks of the country’s opposition. An individual close to the president, General Raul Baduel, who supported Chavez during the April 2002 coup, was sent to a military prison for allegedly stealing government funds. Baduel argues that he was jailed for protesting against some of Hugo Chavez’s decisions.
Nevertheless, in spite of what could be argued were isolated cases, Hugo Chavez seems to have been generally well liked by his armed forces. In past months, while Chavez was ailing in Cuba (after being reelected in the October 2012 elections), the country’s armed forces publicly declared their loyalty to him. Shortly after the president’s death was announced, Venezuelan military chiefs appeared on TV, swearing their loyalty to Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez had named as his successor when he traveled to Cuba in December.
As part of the research for this commentary, this VOXXI contributor talked with a retired Peruvian army officer about the future of Venezuela and of their armed forces. Like Rocio San Miguel mentions in her tweet, the military officer agreed that the Venezuelan military must respect the constitutional order and remain apolitical, meaning not getting involved in the country’s political system. Unfortunately, as the aforesaid examples demonstrate, the Venezuelan military may have lost its vision of impartiality.
It is assumed that when new elections occur, Maduro would be theChavistacandidate. However, if a non-Chavez figure, such as the opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, is elected as Venezuela’s new president, the country’s military should respect these results and swear their loyalty to the new head of state. Hence, it is a troubling development that the military seems to have already chosen a preferetti (meaning Maduro), and so the question has been raised of how the armed forces would react if an opposition individual emerges victorious.
An apolitical and impartial Venezuelan military may be too much to ask for, since, after over a decade of Chavista rule, the armed forces got used to having a loud and dominating voice in the government. In addition, the military personnel probably have developed an affinity to Hugo Chavez the man, not just the president. Even more,retired military officials currently occupy important civilian posts, such as several governorships of the nation’s regions. Hopefully, this developing situation will not deteriorate into tense civil-military relations in the country; Latin America as a whole has seen enough of those. Like the rest of Latin America, the Venezuelan military will have to learn to live in a post-Hugo Chavez world.