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Venezuela: Presidential Loyalty and Army Restructuring

Stratfor Feb 03, 2004

Summary - Venezuela's new defense minister has quietly accelerated a plan to purge the National Armed Forces (FAN) of anyone suspected of political disloyalty to President Hugo Chavez. The plan calls for creating a new military in a year or two comprising troops and officers completely committed to Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Cuban military and political advisers reportedly are engaged directly in helping Chavez execute the FAN's makeover.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is moving quickly to transform the National Armed Forces (FAN) into a new military in which the prerequisites to career advancement would be personal loyalty to Chavez and ideological commitment to his Bolivarian Revolution. The instrument of change is new Defense Minister General-in-Chief Jorge Garcia Carneiro, who was described recently by a Stratfor military source in Caracas as being "completely identified personally and politically with Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution."

Opposition leaders have not paid much attention to the implications of recent moves to restructure the FAN into an organization closely aligned politically with the president's revolution. They are too busy fighting each other over who will campaign to replace Chavez and complaining that the Chavez-dominated National Electoral Council (CNE) is deliberately torpedoing their efforts to force a presidential recall referendum.

However, Chavez's restructuring plans could have major implications for Venezuela and significant regional consequences, particularly for Venezuelan-Colombian relations. The breakdown of the FAN's traditional institutions and values is aggravating corruption within the military and could breed political adventurism among some officers who see themselves as likely presidents. Both trends already are visible within the FAN.

Chavez's primary restructuring goal is to strengthen his grip on power and neutralize the risk of a successful military coup. However, it is clear that Chavez also believes in the regional spread of his Bolivarian revolution, which calls for a strong people's military that is committed to achieving the revolution's goals. These include creating a strong state to guide economic development, protecting the poor against predatory economic elites, and defending the state against all threats, internal or external. From Chavez's perspective, the most immediate external threat is the U.S.-backed expansion of Colombia's armed forces.

One implication of that perspective is that restructuring the FAN likely would be followed by acquiring new weapons systems. While Chavez has focused over the past three years on neutralizing threats to his government from within the FAN, the military's annual budgets and operational readiness have declined significantly. This suited Chavez's purposes, but a new Bolivarian FAN will need weapons suited to its mandate to defend the revolution. Chavez may not be seeking a direct confrontation with Colombia, which is rapidly expanding its armed forces, but he will seek to match Colombia's firepower.

In many respects, Chavez's Bolivarian revolution closely identifies with the Cuban revolution that Fidel Castro has led for more than four decades -- so closely, in fact, that Castro recently designated Chavez as the heir of Castro's crown as the leader of Latin America's revolutionary and progressive forces. In effect, the cornerstone of Chavez's foreign policy is a strong political and economic relationship between Caracas and Havana.

This link is mutually beneficial. Venezuelan crude oil has become Havana's most important economic lifeline. Venezuela ships close to 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba, although the supply deal that Chavez and Castro personally signed three years ago calls for shipments of only 53,000 bpd. Oil-trading sources report that much of that additional oil is being resold internationally, with Havana pocketing the profits from selling at international prices what it buys from Venezuela at concessionary prices. Moreover, Caracas is not pressing Havana to pay more than $700 million in delinquent debts for past oil shipments.

Meanwhile, Chavez relies heavily on Castro for advice and logistical support from nearly 20,000, mainly male, military-age Cubans, who are widely dispersed throughout Venezuela, supposedly teaching the poor to read and to play sports. Stratfor sources in Caracas claim that many of these advisers apparently are engaged directly in political and security cooperation with the Chavez government, which reportedly extends to restructuring the FAN.

Since becoming defense minister two weeks ago, Garcia Carneiro has launched a new purge of the FAN's active-duty officers -- treachery would be rooted out of the FAN, he vowed in his first inaugural address. He also announced a new salary and benefits plan for active-duty personnel, including generous annual increases, cost-of-living adjustments and bonuses; the first increase in 2004 will range from 30 percent to 45 percent. Garcia Carneiro's message is clear: Political loyalty to Chavez will be richly rewarded, but there will be zero tolerance for disloyalty.

Garcia Carneiro also canceled the concealed weapons permits of more than 150 senior military officers and opposition leaders, giving them 10 days to hand over their weapons to the Defense Ministry or face immediate arrest. The list includes not only many dissident military officers, but also civilians like Miranda State Gov. Enrique Mendoza, touted by some in the opposition as Chavez's likely presidential successor.

Garcia Carneiro has the authority to disarm the dissident military officers. However, canceling civilian weapons permits is unusual, since such permits normally are handled through the Interior and Justice ministries, not the military. Garcia Carneiro's decision to cancel the permits of top opposition leaders was a clear signal of his strong support for Chavez.

Besides restructuring the FAN's officer corps, Garcia Carneiro reportedly is moving to recruit noncommissioned officers and troops who are committed openly to the Bolivarian revolution. The pools for such recruits already exist, according to Stratfor military sources in both Caracas and the state of Zulia.

One such pool is a military reserve organization that Chavez created in 2003 outside the FAN's direct control. The intention was to concentrate armed Bolivarian Circle militias and other pro-Chavez groups into a people's reserve army of up to 100,000 members. According to a military source, Garcia Carneiro was involved directly in the establishment of this organization, now totaling an estimated 50,000 members.

Another source of talent is the Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL) -- a quasi-clandestine militia reportedly totaling more than 2,000 members -- based in the border state of Tachira. A Stratfor military source in Zulia says the governor of Tachira leads the FBL and is perhaps receiving military training with support from Cuban civilian advisers.

The FAN's makeover has been under way since Chavez survived a brief military rebellion in April 2001 that nearly ended his presidency. Command structures have been changed completely to ensure that only loyal officers and troops control the FAN's combat units and weapons arsenals. However, Garcia Carneiro's recent appointment indicates that Chavez is determined to speed up the FAN's transformation. It also implies that closer links now exist between the FAN's top commanders and the clandestine armed civilian groups that support Chavez in Caracas and elsewhere -- links that give Chavez a tactical edge in any future confrontation with his opponents.

Copyright 2004 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

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