Venezuela: a full-blown military dictatorship is consumed

Since his rise to power, Hugo Chavez always placed his confidence in the military, making the alliance with civilians a provisional arrangement until the institutional framework for the revolution would assure the complete control of society in the hands of the military. Chavez never concealed the mistrust he had in civilians, which was part of the core argument for the February 4th 1992 coup that initiated his road to power. The steps taken were carefully crafted, beginning with the Plan Bolivar 2000[1], a social intervention program carried out by the military, inaugurating a period of prominent participation across all ranks of government positions, in key decision-making and policy implementation responsibilities with the justification to provide relief in the crisis the country had been facing[2].

The leading role the armed forces took through the Plan Bolivar 2000 not only meant the displacement of career bureaucrats, but also for elected officials that progressively lost authority and resources that would have been allocated to address these same issues in their constituencies, outlining a clear pattern of preponderance of the armed forces in public administration. Although the program was seen as a relief intervention, it was inevitable for it to cause damage within the armed forces, as they were being challenged with increasing responsibilities in the civilian world, in what is often looked at as a major disengagement with its traditional duties. The greater damage, nevertheless, has been a deeply politicized armed force where factional conflicts have since emerged as a consequence, with periodic purges as a corrective measure, like the one that followed the failed coup attempt in April of 2002.

The constitutional framework that gave the armed forces a more predominant role in the political system was steered with a succession of legislative instruments that would strengthen their path to control government beyond traditional bureaucracy, bolstering the military praetorian culture deeply rooted in the country. The professionalization of the new generation of armed forces replaced the counter guerrilla warfare at the core of their mission through the Andres Bello educational plan that sought to give academic preparation to the military, enabling not only their instruction, but also an important exchange with the civil sphere, where Chavez himself took classes in a Political Science masters program. This represented a significant role in the institutional reset that was underway with active and retired military joining government as it took its initial steps, but as the process unfolded, it was more than evident that the widespread military presence was a growing sign of a takeover that was taking place. The civilian control was reduced to the point that the militarization of society was no longer a threat, but a reality.

Since Chavez passed, the military has stood as the main source of support for the successor in power, Nicolas Maduro, anointed by the president as a precaution before he left for treatment to Cuba on December of 2012, shortly after winning another term. Maduro narrowly won the special election on April of 2013, the military since then have played a key role in the series of crisis he has faced so far, and with each event, more power has been transferred to them. In the same way that Chavez built a parallel state, the military were prompted to take advantage of the most strategic areas of the economy, from taxes, customs, to food distribution and mining, making it very rewarding to be on the government’s wing. However, the most disturbing side of the relationship between civilian and military chavismo is much more survival than ideology. The governability crisis Maduro has been enduring for the past couple of years has only added more fuel to the notion that his weak victory was the beginning of the decline of chavismo, but also the definite rise of the military.

The military hierarchy is tied to the regime, not only because of their support, but also due to the high level of involvement in illegal activities and human rights violations that have triggered individual sanctions by the United States, making them prisoners in their own country, since some of the most relevant military official have faced threats of extraditions as warrants have been issued when traveling abroad [3]. These episodes have intensified the belief that chavismo needs to remain in power to avoid being turned into foreign governments in North America and Europe that have indictments ready to proceed. While these are sufficient arguments to make the case for the support Maduro still has from the military, after almost three months of daily protests in Venezuela, and ninety [extra-official] deaths due to the military repression, the latest decisions made by the regime aim at the consolidation of a praetorian regime, defined by Huntington[4], as the intervention of the military in politics.

Venezuela’s future is hanging over a cliff, the multiple deaths, hundreds detained, and close to a thousand injured have infuriated people across the country, and there doesn’t seem to be a resolution in the near future. The possibility of ending the crisis would necessarily entail a negotiation, brokered by a third country perhaps, but definitely considering protection and other guarantees for the regime to leave power. The road ahead is very uncertain, although it is not the first time the country is under a military dictatorship, after forty years of democracy, most of the population had never experienced life under this type of regime before. This could explain why so many teenagers are flooding the streets of Venezuela in demand for the return of democracy in the country. The decision is entirely on the hands of the military, not only because they support Maduro, but also because the military is in charge of running the country.

[1] Trinkunas A., Harold (2004) The Military. From marginalization to center stage in The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela. Jennifer L. McCoy and David J. Myers (Editors), p. 51.
[4] Huntington, S. (1973) Political Order in Changing Societies. Yale University Press. London. P. 193.



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