Civil-Military Relations

The military’s commanding ranks were purged of dissenting officers after an attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002. Those ranks have remained loyal to Chavez’s successor despite increasing political repression, corruption, hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and an exodus of more than 3 million people fleeing upheaval and poverty.

There are reports of growing discontent among midlevel officers who are suffering from the food shortages and oppose being used to suppress growing protests by citizens. But Venezuela’s senior military leaders have become so entangled in illicit activities and human rights abuses in support of the Maduro government, that neither oil sanctions nor the promise of amnesty will convince them to change sides.

The authoritarian governments of Chavez and Maduro had worked to ensure the military’s support by spending generously on arms purchases and providing more than 200 generals with lucrative privileges including subsidized housing and food. Some senior military officers, along with high-ranking members of the Maduro administration, have also been implicated in illicit drug trafficking in the country. Venezuela has become a key transit point for illegal Colombian cocaine shipments to the United States and Europe.

The Bolivarian Revolutionary Government is a military regime with socialist rhetoric. Although the armed forces' role in development gives militarization a distinctively Chavista flair, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Government shares commonalities with the nationalist, right-wing military governments of Latin American history. This martial character of the Bolivarian Revolutionary Government has gone largely unnoticed by the world's radical left. Ironically, Chavez even hosted American anti-war activists to protest the "militarization" of the United States. Hugo Chavez was hypersensitive to criticism from the left and attempts to compare him with the right.

In a solemn military ceremony, held from the courtyard of Honor of the Bolivarian Military University of Venezuela, on January 10, 2019, the members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, recognized as their Commander in Chief and in turn, made an oath of commitment to citizen Nicolás Maduro Moros, Commander in Chief of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces and Constitutional President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the period 2019-2025.

"In this act of reaffirmation, loyalty and recognition, discipline, obedience and subordination are manifested. That is why the Bolivarian National Armed Forces reiterates (...) as our commander-in-chief - Nicolás Maduro- ", said the General in Chief Vladimir Padrino López, Sectoral Vice President of Political Sovereignty, Security and Peace and Minister of Popular Power for Defense, in the company of the Major Generals and Admirals, members of the Superior General Staff of the FANB. The General in Chief Vladimir Padrino López, read the reaffirmation of loyalty manifesto of the armed institution highlighting: "The Bolivarian National Armed Forces reiterates its indefectible Bolivarian, anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic character. Therefore, in martial formation, the troops with arms of the Bolivarian Army, the Bolivarian Navy, the Bolivarian Military Aviation, the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian Militia; also deployed in the eight Strategic Integral Defense Regions: Capital, Central, Occidental, Los Andes, Los Llanos, Oriental, Guayana and Marítima Insular; we accept without hesitation his unique leadership and indisputable leadership, to direct the destinies of the Homeland in the next six years, and we recognize him as our Commander in Chief! ".

Likewise, the men and women in arms swore before the national authorities, honorable leaders and official delegations of 94 countries that attended the ceremony and especially the people of Venezuela, to ratify the commitment of fidelity to the sublime ideals of the Liberator Simón Bolívar , taken up by the Supreme Commander of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chávez Frías; to fight in perfect civic-military union to defend the social guarantees and the Venezuelan nation against the imperial aggressions, consolidating their freedom, their peace, their sovereignty and independence; defend the Homeland, its constitution, its laws and its institutions, until losing its life if necessary; and obey the sacred popular mandate expressed on May 20, 2018, in free, universal, direct and secret elections.

Then, the holder of the military portfolio with the Commanders of Components of the FANB, delivered to the President of the Republic a Replica of the Saber of the General in Chief Rafael Urdaneta as a symbol of loyalty to the Nation, the Constitution and the Bolivarian Revolution.

Civilian supporters of the President adopted military characteristics. The militaristic character of civilian government officials was not a new phenomenon; rather, it dated back to 18th century Venezuela. Chavistas acted more "military" than the soldiers themselves. Pro-Chavez marches employing uniformed soldiers alongside civilians dressed in matching red attire reinforce the militaristic stereotype of the servants of the revolution. Although the world's radical left portrays it as a communal paradise, Venezuela looks more like the preserve of a right-wing Latin American junta.

Venezuela's republican history exhibited a seeming incongruity between the instability and dictatorial rule of the period prior to 1935 and the stability of its post-1958 democracy. A constitution, dated December 21, 1811, marked the official beginning of Venezuela's First Republic. Known commonly by Venezuelan historians as La Patria Boba, the Silly Republic. The brilliant career of Simón Bolívar Palacios as a field general began in 1813 with the famous cry of "war to the death" against Venezuela's Spanish rulers that was followed by a lightning campaign through the Andes to capture Caracas. There he was proclaimed "The Liberator" and, following the establishment of the Second Republic, was given dictatorial powers.

Juan Vicente Gómez, the consummate Venezuelan caudillo, retained absolute power from 1908 to 1935. The "Tyrant of the Andes" ruled until his death, by natural causes, in December 1935 at age seventy-nine. The event precipitated widespread looting, property destruction, and the slaughter of Gómez family members and collaborators by angry mobs in Caracas and Maracaibo. Gómez's twenty-seven years in power brought to a close Venezuela's century of caudillismo and, according to many historical accounts, his demise marked the beginning of Venezuela's modern period.

Although he was not the last of Venezuela's dictators, analysts of contemporary Venezuelan society commonly cite Gómez's lengthy rule as the true line of demarcation between Venezuela's democratic present and its authoritarian past. Although the nation's post-1958 democratic leaders received their political baptism of fire in Venezuela in 1928, their principal political, social, and economic perceptions were formed in exile in Europe, Mexico, or the United States. During the transition years from 1935 to 1958, the outlines of a national democratic political culture, including the configuration of Venezuela's modern political party system, at last began to take shape.

Historically the role of the FAN in national life was significant. Even under the democratic system reestablished in 1958, the FAN (including the National Guard) retained certain traditional responsibilities. Among these were the regulation and control of national highways; the security of basic industries such as petroleum and petrochemicals, energy production, and steel production; the administration of the prison system; the enforcement of federal taxes on alcoholic beverages; and the regulation of customs and immigration. In response to the FAN's traditional concern with the national borders, an active-duty officer usually headed the Directorate of Frontiers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to law, Venezuelan frontier regions were considered security zones; accordingly, foreigners could not own land in these areas, and no construction or industrial development could take place there without the approval of the government as expressed by the Ministry of National Defense. Other security zones included coastal areas, territory surrounding lakes and rivers, and areas adjacent to military installations and to industrial facilities engaged in basic industrial production. In a more limited sphere, the FAN also conducted small-scale civic-action projects. Most of these projects were confined to the dispensing of medical care-- immunization and dental and medical attention--to residents of isolated rural areas. The army has also provided literacy programs for these citizens.

In theory, the internal security mission of the FAN involved the National Guard more than the other branches of service. This stemmed from the purely domestic orientation of the National Guard. In practice, however, the delineation of mission blurred somewhat. National Guard posts in frontier regions have responded to cross-border attacks and incursions by Colombian insurgent forces, thereby fulfilling an external defense mission. Some observers also have characterized National Guard efforts against drug trafficking as an external defense effort. By the same token, Venezuelan governments have accepted the fact that regular military forces at times may have to be employed in order to maintain order in major cities. When riots or violent demonstrations have broken out, the public routinely has demanded a response from the minister of defense in addition to the efforts expended by local police.

The fall of oil prices in the late 1980s created the need for economical and political reforms that were violently unwelcomed by the population. Consequently, the over reaction of the government to the popular disobedience of 1989 triggered the two coup attempts of 1992. These two military uprisings and the increasing presence of active duty officers in many areas of the economic and political realm indicated the diminishing of the civilian's control over the armed forces, thereby deteriorating civil-military relations in Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed troops at Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas's principal military base, in a longer-than-usual (two hours and 15 minutes) year-end salute on 27 December 2005. One current in Chavez's speech was his vision of the military as a tool to help spread his revolution throughout Venezuelan society. The ideological offensive, he said, should radiate outside the ranks of the armed forces to help build a new country. He celebrated the role of the military in the referendum and regional elections. In an outburst of poetic hyperbole, he said "there aren't enough stones in the world to erect a statue in honor of the military's worthy role in fighting poverty..." Chavez predicted the military would reach to "the farthest corner of the planet" in its humanitarian mission. Expanding on the country's economic growth, which was "first-place in Latin America," Chavez tasked the military with helping the economy recover and singled out the leadership roles played by active duty and retired officers in parastatals. Chavez took issue with the view that the military should be apolitical, although he conceded it should not be "partisan." He lambasted media sources for sowing "indiscipline" by criticizing its political role. Later in the speech, he spent several minutes praising retired officers for running for governor.

Chavez's control of the military had strengthened. The year-end speech marks six years that Chavez has had to marginalize and dismiss opposition officers. Meanwhile, new recruits have experienced six years of indoctrination, which his proposed "ideological offensive" will only serve to intensify. In addition to his attempts at flattery, the use of the military in nearly all aspects of his "revolution" signals to officers that a career in the armed forces offers opportunities. Moreover, the aforementioned perks are trickling down to key military personnel.

By 2006 active duty and retired military officers were omnipresent in President Hugo Chavez' administration and civil service. The most important military official in the Government is the President. The new Organic Law of the National Armed Forces (LOFAN) establishes that the President has the "military rank" of commander-in-chief. Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel, occasionally appeared in uniform to address his troops. Nine of Venezuela's 23 governors and six of its 25 cabinet ministers are ex-soldiers. Active duty and retired officers also had a strong presence in executive ministries, parastatal companies, diplomatic missions abroad, and some state governments.

Chavez' management style also tended to increase the number of military officials in government. The President trusted his former military colleagues to manage senior civilian positions. By placing them in positions with opportunities for illicit enrichment, Chavez rewarded his officers and keeps them beholden to him. Whether they are corrupt or not, officers in these posts draw both civilian and military salaries. Chavez has made civilian government stints even more popular by having military rules weigh them more heavily in promotion considerations.

In 2006 President Chavez adopted the "rojo, rojito" ("red, very red") slogan as a campaign mantra in the wake of the leak of Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez's speech to PDVSA managers that they had better support Chavez's re-election or face dismissal. Chavez subsequently declared that the military is also "rojo, rojito," putting the military in a difficult position.

Defense Minister Baduel told the local media 08 November 2006 that the armed forces are patriotic and subordinate to political authority, but also an essentially "professional" institution. He emphasized that the Constitution prohibits the military from "participating in activities of proselytism or political militancy." Baduel made a call for "good sense," saying that it is not "healthy for the Armed Forces to engage in a political diatribe." Baduel also reportedly met with all colonels of the FAN and stressed that the FAN is apolitical and will not engage in politics for either side. Presidential Staff Member Admiral Luis Cabrera Aguirre, however, affirmed Chavez's statement, telling the media that all the organizations of the government, including the armed forces, need to be "rojo, rojito" because that is the color of the "Venezuelan revolution".

In early January 2007, President Chavez announced a 5-year program to train/indoctrinate the Venezuelan military to make it more "revolutionary." Chavez also announced (and already effectively implemented) the changing of the name of the armed forces to the Bolivarian Armed Forces. The government continued to indoctrinate young recruits and new officers and force out or sideline more senior officers who did not agree with the government's direction.

President Chavez ratcheted up his threats against the opposition on 8-9 November 2008 while stumping for his candidates in Carabobo, Sucre, and Zulia States, states where opposition gubernatorial candidates are running strong. The Venezuelan president ordered a nearby garrison to take over an airport in Sucre State and pledged to take tanks out to the streets ("sacar los tanques") from Carabobo State to "defend the revolutionary government" if the opposition wins there. Chavez also stepped up his ongoing verbal attacks against Zulia governor and Maracaibo mayoral candidate Manuel Rosales, alleging an opposition plot to "cover up" a PSUV win in the state, and suggested he would take military action if Rosales does not recognize a win by PSUV gubernatorial contender Gian Carlo Di Martino. While Chavez's statements were far more rhetorical than realistic given the low operational readiness of the Venezuelan military, they were an escalation.

Chavez's sucessor as President, Nicolas Maduro, was not a military man, and he did not have the confidence of the military. During the months of deadly anti-government protests that rocked oil-rich Venezuela in early 2014, Maduro accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers were arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, the leadership of the armed forces continue to support the president. In March 2014, three air force generals were arrested for plotting against the government. But the military leadership expressed its loyalty to the embattled president.

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