Army of the people

Print edition : April 21, 2006


Venezuela is undergoing a radical change, if not a revolution, and the military is at the centre of it.

THAT something interesting and unusual is taking place in Venezuela first really struck me when, in response to a sarcastic comment about an anti-war meeting of the 2006 World Social Forum taking place at an Air Force base, a member of the audience rose and said, in the best pedagogical manner: "Look, what we have here in Venezuela is not a regular army but an army of the people."

Venezuela is undergoing a radical change, if not an evolution, and the military is right at the centre of it. How could this be happening, many sceptics ask, when the military, especially in Latin America, is usually an agent of the status quo? Others, less sceptical, ask: Is Venezuela the exception, or is it the wave of the future?

Many explanations have been advanced for the behaviour of Venezuela's military. Edgardo Lander, noted Venezuelan political scientist, says that one reason could be that compared to other Latin American armies there is a much higher proportion of "people of humble origins in the Venezuelan officer corps." Unlike many other Latin American countries, he contends, "the upper classes have really looked at a military career with scorn here".

Richard Gott, one of the leading authorities on the American Left, adds another factor: the mingling of officers with civilians in the country's educational system. "Beginning in the 1970s, under a government programme called the Andres Bello program, officers were sent to the universities in significant numbers, and there they rubbed elbows with other students studying, say, economics or political science."

This immersion in civilian life had fateful consequences. One, the officers were exposed to progressive ideas at a time that "the Left dominated the universities". Two, it resulted in a deeper integration of the officer corps with civilian society than in most other countries in Latin America.

Also critical, says Gott, was that for some reason, Venezuela appears to have sent far fewer officers than many other Latin American countries to the U.S. Army-run School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, which served for a long time as the main conduit of counter-insurgency training to the western hemisphere's military forces.

Now, these conditions may have contributed to making the Venezuelan Army less reactionary than other armies in Latin America, but they do not entirely explain why it would be one of the spearheads of the most radical social transformation taking place in the hemisphere today. Gott, Lander and other Venezuela specialists concur in naming one crucial factor: the absolutely central role of Hugo Chavez.

CIVIL VOLUNTEERS WHO joined the Reserves in response to Chavez's call.-JUAN BARRETO

Chavez is many things: a charismatic figure; a great orator; a man who plays local, regional and global politics with skill and verve. He is also a man of the Army, one who reveres the military as the institution that, under Simon Bolivar, liberated Venezuela and much of Latin America from Spain. He has acted on the belief that the military is destined to play a decisive role in Venezuela's social transformation.

Chavez, according to his own account, joined the military because he thought that it would be a springboard to professional baseball. However, he came into the Army at a time of great institutional flux. The Army in the 1970s was engaged in counter-guerilla operations at the same time that many of its officers were exposed to progressive ideas through the Andres Bello programme at universities and were recruited by leftists into discreet discussion groups.

Instead of becoming a baseball star, Chavez became a popular lecturer in history at Venezuela's War College, and steadily moved up the chain of command. When not performing his official duties, he engaged himself in building a clandestine grouping of young, like-minded, idealistic officers, called the "Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement". Disillusioned with what they perceived to be a dysfunctional democratic system dominated by corrupt political parties - Accion Democratica and Copei - that alternated in power, these "Young Turks" evolved from a study circle into a conspiracy that hatched ideas for a coup that would inaugurate a period of national renewal.

As Richard Gott writes in his authoritative book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Chavez's preparations were overtaken by the "Caracazo" of 1989, a social cataclysm triggered by a sharp rise in transportation prices resulting from pressure from the International Monetary Fund. For about three days, thousands of urban poor from the ranchos or shantytowns on the mountainsides surrounding Caracas descended on the city centre and affluent neighbourhoods to loot and riot in what was ill-disguised class warfare. The Caracazo seared itself in the minds of many young officers. Not only did it reveal to them how the vast majority of the population had become thoroughly disenchanted with the liberal democratic system, but it also made many bitter that they were placed in a position of having to give orders to shoot hundreds of poor people to defend that system.

When Chavez was given command of a parachute regiment nearly three years later, he and his co-conspirators felt that the moment was ripe for their long-planned coup. The attempt failed, but it catapulted Chavez to fame in the eyes of many Venezuelans and to notoriety in the eyes of the elite. Chavez appeared on national television to ask units that participated in the coup to lay down their arms, and, according to Gott, that "one minute of air time, at a moment of personal disaster, converted him into someone perceived as the country's potential saviour." Chavez took full responsibility for the failure of the coup but electrified the nation when he declared that "new possibilities will arise again".

Chavez was imprisoned, but began campaigning for the presidency almost immediately after his release. What he could not achieve with a coup, he was now determined to pursue by constitutional means. He was no longer in the military; he nevertheless kept in close touch with his fellow officers and with enlisted men, among whom he was tremendously popular. When he finally won the presidency in 1998, and by a large margin, it was not surprising that he recruited brother officers to head or staff key government agencies. More important, Chavez gradually brought in the military to serve as a key institutional instrument for the change he was bringing to the country. The disaster brought about by torrential rains in 1999 provided an opportunity for Chavez to deploy the military in its new role; army units were mobilised to set up and man soup kitchens and build housing for thousands of refugees on army land. Then, military civic action and engineering units were deployed in the new government's programme to set up "sustainable agro-industrial settlements" in different parts of the country. The services of military hospitals were also made available to the poor.

The involvement of the military in programmes of radical change was not regarded positively in all quarters of the Army. Indeed, many generals resented the populist ex-colonel, and when the process accelerated, as Chavez moved to implement land reform and take direct control of the oil industry, he provoked newspaper owners, the elite and the middle class to oust him by force.

After a series of violent confrontations between the opposition and the Chavistas in the streets of Caracas, a number of high-ranking generals, including the head of the armed forces, the chief of the staff of the armed forces, and the commander of the army, succeeded in toppling Chavez on April 11, 2002. However, most officers with field commands and most junior officers either stayed loyal to Chavez or remained neutral, and when thousands of urban poor descended on Caracas to demand Chavez' release, the loyalists launched a counter-coup, arrested the conspirators, and restored Chavez to power.

The coup attempt was a blessing in a way: it gave Chavez the opportunity to complete the transformation of the military. About 100 top generals and officers were cashiered for treason, with the key posts in the high command going to people loyal to Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. The purge probably deprived the U.S., which had supported the coup, of its key supporters within the Venezuelan military. Chavez's project, which he has now defined as a movement towards "socialism", rests on the tremendous support he has among the urban and rural poor. However, the military is Chavez's only reliable organised institution. The press is hostile to him. So is the Church hierarchy. The bureaucracy is slow and riddled with corruption. The political parties are discredited, with Chavez himself leading the attack against them and preferring to keep his supporters organised as a loose mass movement.

Recognising the centrality of the military as a reforming institution, Chavez created an army of urban military auxiliaries or reservists to support the regular armed forces. Originally known as the "Bolivarian Circles," this reserve force, which is projected eventually to number one million, is becoming instrumental in the organisation and delivery of social programmess in shantytowns.

These auxiliaries also now participate, alongside the National Guard, in the expropriation of private land for the accelerated agrarian reform programmes.

For Chavez, according to Lander, the military is reliable because it is not corrupt and is more efficient than other institutions. Lander questions this. "I don't think there is anything inherent in the military that somehow makes it less susceptible to corruption than other institutions." Military efficiency, he says, is a half-truth: "Yes, the military may be effective when deployed to solve immediate problems like building schoolhouses or clinics staffed by Cuban doctors. But it is not a long-term solution. You need to institutionalise these solutions, and that's where this revolution is weak. You have a proliferation of ad hoc solutions that remain ad hoc."

Yet there is no doubt that among Chavez and his generation of officers, there is a reforming zeal that will fuel the revolution for some time to come. It is a zeal borne out of a tremendous sense of frustration, one which Chavez expressed to Gott in an interview a few years ago: "Over many years the Venezuelan military were eunuchs: we were not allowed to speak; we had to look on in silence while we watched the disaster caused by corrupt and incompetent governments. Our senior officers were stealing, our troops were eating almost nothing, and we had to remain under tight discipline. But what kind of discipline is that? We were made complicit with the disaster."

The sentiments expressed by Chavez in the preceding paragraph would probably resonate with many junior officers in many other Third World armies. Which brings us to the question: What are the lessons of the Venezuelan experience for other societies in South America? More specifically, is the Venezuelan experience replicable?

Rather than make broad comparisons, perhaps it might be wise to pick a military that today is experiencing tremendous turmoil and discontent much like the Venezuelan military in the late 1980s: the Philippine military. Its restiveness is in response to a crisis similar to what Venezuelan society underwent during that period: a deep-seated crisis of corrupt liberal democratic institutions. The Philippine military is also a good choice because it is probably a more typical Third World military than the Venezuelan military, because it has close ties to the U.S..

Can the Venezuelan experience be replicated? The answer is probably a cautious no.

First of all, unlike the Venezuelan military, the Philippine military does not have a revolutionary nationalist heritage. It is not a direct descendant of the Katipunan, the revolutionary secret society, or the Army of the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1900 that fought against both Spain and the U.S. The U.S. initially formed it to support U.S. occupation troops and maintain public order during the colonial period, and maintained it to back up U.S. forces fighting the Japanese during the Second World War.

Since the Philippines' independence in 1946, the Philippine Armed Forces have maintained very close links to the U.S. military thanks to monetary aid and training programmes.

Second, the Philippine military has not had the equivalent of an Andres Bello programme to immerse officers systematically in the civilian educational system and expose them consistently not only to the latest technical and managerial concepts but also to progressive ideas and movements. But even if such a system existed, the ideological hegemony of neoliberal economics in Philippine universities from the 1990s until today would probably have nullified the positive effects of immersion.

Third, in Venezuela, officers had an ambivalent relationship with the political Left, fighting them as guerillas on the one hand and absorbing their ideas and proposals for change on the other. In the Philippines, by contrast, the military sees the Communist-led New People's Army, with which it has been struggling for nearly 30 years, as its enemy unto death, both institutionally and ideologically.

Not surprisingly, while groups like Reform the Armed Force Movement (RAM) or Magdalo have periodically emerged, their programmes have had little social and national content, their agenda being merely to seize power and put the military in command of society in order to purge civilian politics of corruption. Class analysis, imperialism, land reform - these are concepts that most officers see as belonging to the paradigm of a rival military force. Finally, no military is so thoroughly assimilated within the hegemonies of civil society as the Philippine military. Competing civilian elites have cultivated and manipulated their factions within the military.

Even military reform groups have often ended up in unhealthy relationships of dependency with traditional politicians and economic elites. The godfather relationship between the traditional politician Juan Ponce Enrile and the military rebel Gringo Honasan, for instance, was probably the key factor that stood in the way of RAM becoming a truly autonomous and progressive force.

But history is anything if not open. The Philippine military and the U.S.-influenced armed forces of other countries may still be capable of yielding surprises. After all, an observer of the Venezuelan military circa the late-1990s would probably have wagered that, with its cadre of corrupt senior officers tied to the U.S. military, the institution would remain a faithful instrument of the status quo in the coming years.

Walden Bello is a Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines (Diliman) and Executive Director of the research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South in Bangkok. He recently visited Venezuela.

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