Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective

Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective

Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective

Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective

Synopsis

Unlike most other emerging South American democracies, Venezuela has not succumbed to a successful military coup d'etat during four decades of democratic rule. What drives armed forces to follow the orders of elected leaders? And how do emerging democracies gain that control over their military establishments? Harold Trinkunas answers these questions in an examination of Venezuela's transition to democracy following military rule and its attempts to institutionalize civilian control of the military over the past sixty years, a period that included three regime changes.

Trinkunas first focuses on the strategic choices democratizers make about the military and how these affect the internal civil-military balance of power in a new regime. He then analyzes a regime's capacity to institutionalize civilian control, looking specifically at Venezuela's failures and successes in this arena during three periods of intense change: the October revolution (1945-48), the Pact of Punto Fijo period (1958-98), and the Fifth Republic under President Hugo Chavez (1998 to the present). Placing Venezuela in comparative perspective with Argentina, Chile, and Spain, Trinkunas identifies the bureaucratic mechanisms democracies need in order to sustain civilian authority over the armed forces.

Excerpt

The failed 1992 coup attempt by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frias came as a surprise to many observers of Venezuela who had long considered it a consolidated democracy. Although the coup attempts were beaten back by forces loyal to the regime, Venezuela’s democracy began to unravel. President Carlos Andrés Pérez was impeached in 1993, and presidential elections to select his successor were highly contested. President Rafael Caldera was elected with the support of less than a third of the votes cast; and despite attempts to restabilize the democratic system, he presided over a period characterized by banking crises, economic decay, and political unrest. the persistent crises opened the way for Hugo Chávez to win the 1998 presidential elections on a populist and revolutionary political platform.

Upon coming to power through elections in 1998, Chávez led a sweeping effort to dismantle and replace the democratic institutions that had been established in 1958, often relying on the armed forces to implement and support his agenda for change. Through frequent referenda, President Chávez legitimated the elimination of the Venezuelan Congress and Supreme Court, convened a Constitutional Assembly, and enacted a new constitution that empowered new legislative and judicial actors. Chávez’s frequent use of military symbolism to generate support for his regime, along with his reliance on military officers to staff key positions in his administration, has led to great concern among Venezuelan and outside observers over the prospects for democracy in this country. Although President Chávez has argued that he is leading a “peaceful revolution,” a failed coup attempt in 2002, mass mo-

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