The Venezuelan Military: The Making of an Anomaly

Article excerpt

Led by Hugo Chavez, a former military officer, a "Bolivarian revolutionary process" has been underway in Venezuda since Chavez's election to the presidency in 1998. While genuine progressive changes have been made, and although Chavez has won the enmity of the country's rich and powerful, this "Bolivarian revolution" has been rejected by some on the left because it is headed by a military man and because the military has played a significant and prominent role in numerous state institutions and government plans. The reason for this rejection is the standard left wisdom that the military is an integral part of the bourgeois state's repressive machinery, imbued with a bourgeois ideology, and therefore incapable of playing a revolutionary role in a capitalist society.

But perhaps this is a mechanistic interpretation. It might be better to avoid generalizations and analyze each country's military within its own specific reality. If we take this approach, we see that Venezuela's military has not played that negative role. During the more than four years in which the military has occupied a key space in the Venezuelan political scene, they have defended the decisions made democratically by the Venezuelan people. The military were the main actors in supporting Chavez's return to power when, in April 2002, a group of senior officers--most of whom found themselves with no soldiers to lead--bent themselves to the will of the wealthy classes in launching the attempted coup.

It is not very well known that the only putschist senior officers in real positions of command were Ramirez Perez, head of the Armed Forces General Staff, and Vasquez Velasco, Army Commander General. Several retired generals supported the coup, along with only 200 of 8,000 officers (generals, admirals, colonels, lieutenant colonels, and lower grade officers). Eighty percent of commanding officers participated in the plan to rescue Chavez, and the number could be higher because at the time of the coup, communications were very difficult.

Military personnel, who have overwhelmingly been in support of the Bolivarian revolution, have also headed important social projects organized by the government. They have placed their work capacities, technical skills, and organizational knowledge at the service of the poorest sectors of society. The most important of these undertakings has been Plan Bolivar 2000, a broad program aimed at improving the living standard of the poor by, among other things, cleaning up streets and schools, improving the environment to fight endemic diseases, and recovering the social infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. The goal of the plan was to find solutions to social problems while generating employment in the neediest sectors and incorporating community organizations into these efforts.

It is important to note that the plan was begun during Chavez's first year in power, when he faced a very unfavorable balance of forces. Most of the country's governors and mayors, elected in the year before the presidential election, were members of the opposition, and the same was true for the National Assembly and the Supreme Court of Justice. In addition, most of Chavez's political cadres were then working on the political challenge, first by amending the constitution to make it possible to implement his popular mandate, and then in a series of elections to renew that mandate. Chavez's victory had produced high expectations, and it was necessary to begin immediately to satisfy the people's aspirations. The only organization with a national structure capable of carrying out Chavez's mission (besides the Catholic Church) was the military.

The Venezuelan armed forces, especially the junior officers, took on these tasks of social reconstruction with enthusiasm. And as they made direct contact with the problems suffered by the very poor, these officers became more socially aware and engaged. The junior officers now belong to the more radical sectors of the process. …