The Institutions of Intelligence in Venezuela: Lessons from 45 Years of Democracy

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The story of modern intelligence institutions in Venezuela begins with the military regime that came to power in November 1948 and crumbled in the face of a popular uprising on January 23, 1958. The armed forces initially seized power to prevent a mass-based democratic regime from implementing leftist reforms. Once in power the general and admirals began to organize an office inside of the military to identify and keep track of their opponents. In December of 1952 the armed forces blatantly perpetrated fraud in order to win the presidential elections, and subsequently opposition to military rule intensified. General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the newly-installed president/dictator, expanded and centralized the intelligence apparatus. He concentrated the collection, processing and implementation of intelligence policy in the hands of a new institution, the National Security Service (Seguridad Nacional-SN). Pérez Jiménez lavished resources on the SN and gave command to Pedro Estrada, one of his most trusted lieutenants. Estrada acted as the Pérez Jiménez's director of central intelligence. He used the SN to hunt down, imprison, torture and liquidate enemies of the regime. So great was the hatred of the populace for the SN that when Pérez Jiménez and his inner circle fled abroad the first place that jubilant Venezuelans raided was the headquarters of the SN. In Caracas, Maracaibo and other important centers angry mobs killed the remaining SN agents and released the prisoners.

Dictatorship gave way to democracy after a transition that lasted ten months. Many of the political party leaders who came to power following the elections of December 1959 had suffered at the hands of the SN. They recognized the need for good intelligence, especially given that the new democratic regime was under attack from authoritarians on the left and right. This challenge convinced them that the primary focus of their restructured intelligence institution, like its predecessor, would have to be on identifying and neutralizing enemies of the political regime. The new democratic political elite, as well as the economic elite, however, had lived in fear of Pedro Estrada and the SN. They did not again want to deal with an individual or institution that possessed that kind of power. Thus, those who designed the institutions of post-1958 democracy, known as the Punto Fijo regime, created a decentralized intelligence community with institutions that would communicate horizontally, up a chain of command that stopped with the president and the high command of the dominant political parties. Horizntal linkages between the leaders of each of the new intelligence institutions was discouraged.

This work examines the institutions and operational characteristics of the Venezuelan intelligence community. It is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the period between the two failed coups of 1992 and the inauguration of Hugo Chávez Frías as president, on February 2, 1999. These were the final years of the decentralized intelligence system put in place by those who established and normalized Punto Fijo democracy. After the coups of 1992 Venezuela's intelligence agencies labored on behalf of a dying democratic regime whose leaders had come to doubt their own legitimacy. The second part examines developments following the interment of that regime by Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. During his four and a half years in office President of Venezuela Chávez has reshaped the decentralized intelligence nodules that he inherited from Punto Fijo democracy. As of mid-2003 this reshaped intelligence community is becoming a unified force, one capable of playing a major role in consolidating the new democracy that its supporters label the Fifth Republic.

The final focus of this essay draws conclusions from the earlier sections about the role of intelligence institutions under new democratic regimes in general, and Venezuela in particular. …