President Hugo Chávez said that if he can't govern, he wants Vice-President Nicolás Maduro (left) to succeed him. But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (right), a former army officer, may have more support from the military. (Photo source: Associated Press)
Venezuela’s military is constitutionally neutral but Chávez has packed its leadership with loyalists. The military plays an important role in running the country, particularly its oil industry. There are three members of the armed forces in the cabinet, while 11 of the 23 provinces are run by army men. Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters’ choice.
In the run-up to October’s elections, the chairman of Venezuela’s joint chiefs, General Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television that the military would “heed the constitution and respect the will of the people.”
In any scenario, the military’s sign-off appears to be indispensable. Not so much because of its firepower, but because of the logistical and administrative control that the armed forces maintain over vital state functions. … Chavismo, as it learned during 14 years of governing, was able to give shape to an institutionality that functions: the misiones [economic assistance projects], the food distribution networks [both of which relied on military participation]. …
If the military sector wants to influence Venezuela’s political drift, it won’t have to do it in a high-profile way, through a classic pronouncement. It would be enough to put that [logistical and administrative] apparatus at the disposal of one of the succession candidates, while denying it to the other. This is the trophy that, along with the mythology of comandante Chávez, [Vice President Nicolás] Maduro and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello are disputing. If at the moment Maduro has an advantage because Chávez specifically named him as his successor, the long term could favor Cabello [a former army officer]. The majority of army officers currently commanding the troops are part of the military academy class of 1987, the same as Cabello.
All that is known of the military sector is that it is an archipelago of groups united by criteria of loyalty to specific leaders, of economic convenience, and of professional and ideological principles.
There is a consensus that all those groups will be united in the event that the transition starting January 10, when Hugo Chávez is expected to be unable to present himself for his 2013-2019 swearing-in, overflows institutional capacities, and that the need to establish public order through dissuasion or force thus demands esprit de corps.
But that would be the nightmare scenario. In general, the officer corps prefers to avoid open interventions. Since February 27, 1989 [a day of violent protests and rioting in Caracas], on the occasions in which it has been obligated to carry out repressive functions, the cost for the institution has been high, in terms of cracks in internal discipline and of judicial cases opened against soldiers who then feel abandoned by the civilian politicians who ordered them. In addition, such exposure would place the military under the scrutiny of the international community, which has enough cases of illicit activities and human rights violations at its disposal to pressure some key officers.
So the role that the armed forces would be expected to play would be a type of “Egyptian scenario,” in which the officers, behind the scenes, would define the “red lines” up to which indefinition and disorder can be tolerated. The armed forces’ watchful tutelage, amid a constitutional transition of power, would require it to reorder itself internally to figure out who among them would be the leading voice for its supervisory role.
Who are the contenders? It is certain that the factions most likely to represent military opinion during the crisis maintain their loyalty to the Bolivarian [pro-Chávez] process, whether because of political conviction or because of a more abstract loyalty to the letter of the constitution. Nonetheless, nuances can be discerned that set apart three groups, which in a very schematic way can be called “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.”
Of the first, the current representative is the minister of defense, Adm. Diego Molero. It is meaningful that Chávez, knowing the health situation he was facing, named him to the post last October. Why trust in Molero at such a delicate moment? Maybe because of his declared socialist convictions. According to some sources, Molero’s appointment met with resistance in the barracks. He is an officer with few professional credentials — he ranked 53rd of 56 students in his military academy graduating class — and without support among the troops. … Chávez’s illness leaves him in a position of weakness. In fact, the President only swore him in on December 10, two months after his designation, and minutes before Chávez left for Havana to be operated. Which left the leader without an opportunity to legitimize himself among his peers, above all in the Army, which resents having a naval officer commanding such a key portfolio.
Molero was an authentic surprise. Those who seemed destined to occupy the ministry were Army Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, the current chief of the Strategic Operational Command (CEO), and Gen. Carlos Alcalá Cordones, the commander of the Army. The two belong to the class of 1983 and were tied at the time to the Revolutionary Bolívarian Movement-200 (MBR-200), the internal clique that surfaced in 1992 with the coup attempt led by Chávez and three other officers. But while Alcalá Cordones is seen as an institutionalist officer, firmly attached to the parameters of military professionalism, Barrientos may be a pragmatist, of the faction more willing to wait to know which way the wind is blowing before taking a side. …
It is also expected that the eleven retired officers recently [in December] elected as state governors will play some role. In addition to the personal influence that each one may have over the rank and file, especially the generals (like ex-Ministers of Defense García Carneiro and Rangel Silva, or the Governor of Bolívar State, Rangel Gómez), they are considered connoisseurs of the ins and outs of politics, a bit of baggage that may be crucial in a scenario where bridges must be built between civilians and officers.
Another possibility that can’t be discarded is that, in the darkness of the military “black box,” another unknown leadership may be germinating, as Chávez himself was until the early hours of February 4, 1992 [when he launched his failed coup attempt].
The first test of fire for the military has a date. On January 10, the new president must be sworn in. Despite the official secrecy about the president-elect’s health, it is expected that Chávez won’t be there. In political gossip some expect an agreement to declare the president’s temporary absence, which would open a space of 90 days, renewable once, so that Chávez can assume the post or, if he is ultimately absent, so that new elections can be convened.Some doubts about this procedure remain. … But all must transpire in peace: if uncertainty gives way to disorder in the streets, the military may see itself as obligated to intervene.This possibility, feared by all, could cause fractures within the military rank and file, as happened in April 2002 during the brief coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours. “Among the officers are different groups who aren’t necessarily in contact with each other, or share the same interests,” warns the expert Rocío San Miguel [of the NGO Control Ciudadano.]The other great unknown is the Bolivarian Militia. With 120,000 members, light weaponry and poor organization, it is not a rival to any professional security force. But it was constituted by mandate of President Chávez, and it sees itself as a praetorian guard of the [Bolivarian] process. Tied to the most extreme Chavistas, it may be able to prevail in a conflict. But these are questions that nobody wants to see answered: the constitutional order is preferred by both civilians and soldiers.