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Venezuela: Palace Coup Rumors

By Stratfor

29.03.05 | Summary Unconfirmed reports hint that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is about to replace his vice president with his interior and justice minister. These reports come in the wake of recent command shifts inside the armed forces that suggest divisions between the administration and elements of the military. Chavez's replacement of his vice president would tend to confirm reports of a deepening rift between Chavez and senior Venezuelan officials who believe he has provoked the U.S. government into actions that could destabilize Venezuela. The assassination fears prompting Chavez's rumored shuffle may be accurate, although Chavez should probably seek his Brutus within the Venezuelan presidential palace's ranks, not in Washington.

Analysis

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly has decided to replace Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel with Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon, sources at the Interior and Justice Ministry said March 28. These claims could not be confirmed independently; however, ministry sources said senior advisers to Chacon have hinted since last week that they would move with Chacon to the vice presidency soon.

Reports of Rangel's impending firing have surfaced within the government before -- though they have proven inaccurate. The rumors' coming true would tend to confirm that political rifts within the Chavez government are worsening, and could indicate that Chavez's fears of assassination are well-founded, though misplaced.

During his six years in the presidency, Chavez has ruled by keeping his supporters divided. These divisions exist naturally, since the president's political supporters include civilian politicians, military personnel and business groups that became wealthy under Chavez, along with many regional and local interests who have economic and political capital invested in the "Bolivarian Revolution." These groups see each other as rivals and competitors for the economic spoils accompanying political power. However, since November 2004, the Chavez government's internal divisions have intensified.

This has happened for several reasons. First of all, "chavistas," as Chavez's supporters are known, generally became much bolder after the Bolivarian Revolution swept nearly every elected local and regional position in Oct. 31, 2004, regional elections. Without any opposition confronting him, Chavez has accelerated his efforts to consolidate political power. Along with victory has come increased competition between civilian government officials and senior military personnel who have personal economic and political investments in backing the president.

However, the president's personal conduct in recent months -- particularly his intensifying rhetorical attacks against the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush -- reportedly has upset many senior officials in the Venezuelan government and armed forces (FAN). These officials reportedly include Rangel, Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez and army commander Gen. Raul Baduel.

Publicly, these officials have supported Chavez's attacks against the Bush administration. However, sources in the FAN and the government have reported in the past week that officials, such as Rodriguez and Rangel, fear the president's increasingly vitriolic rhetorical attacks against the United States will trigger retaliation that Venezuela's government cannot withstand.

Separately, sources in the FAN report that Baduel and other senior army generals worry that the Bush administration may seek to destabilize the Chavez government by aggravating discontent within the FAN. Reportedly, Baduel suspects that the Bush administration may act by proxy through Colombia to trigger a border incident -- in which better-trained and - equipped Colombian forces would defeat Venezuelan forces. Baduel thinks this could happen within the next three or four months -- before Venezuela takes delivery of at least 10 new Russian attack helicopters and some of the 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles that Chavez purchased from Russia for over $400 million.

Reports of discontent within the FAN and accompanying political divisions between Chavez and many of his senior political associates, including Rangel, surfaced within weeks of several top command changes within the FAN. On March 2, army Gen. Julio Ramon Quintero Viloria, the commander of the FAN joint command (CUFAN), was forcibly retired from the army by a Defense Ministry resolution signed by Defense Minister Gen. Julio Garcia Carneiro. However, sources in the FAN report that Quintero Viloria was retired at the orders of Baduel, who is the defense minister's subordinate, but holds more political power within the FAN than Garcia Carneiro.

Quintero Viloria is a hardcore chavista loyalist within the FAN. Baduel is also nominally a chavista, but in fact is closer politically to Rangel and Rodriguez, according to sources in the FAN. However, two weeks after Garcia Carneiro signed the orders retiring Quintero Viloria from the army, Chavez reinstated him to active duty and appointed him commander of new military reserves slated to reach 100,000 recruits by 2006.

Chavez said Quintero Viloria would respond exclusively to the president's orders. Baduel and other senior FAN commanders reportedly were enraged that the new military reserve would not fall under normal command-and-control structures, feeling that Chavez has created a de facto parallel army answerable only to him.

On March 2, Chavez also promoted army Col. Cliver Antonio Alcala Cordones from second-in-command to commander of the presidential honor guard, tasked with protecting the president's life. Prior to that, Alcala Cordones commanded the Ayala armored battalion -- based at Fort Tiuna, in Caracas -- which is regarded as a fiercely pro-Chavez unit. FAN officials who know Alcala Cordones well say he would not balk at carrying out presidential orders calling for deadly force against military rebels or civilian foes of Chavez.

At the same time, Chavez named Maj. Gen. Wilfredo Ramon Silva -- another hardcore chavista officer -- to the position of army chief of staff. Silva has been dogged by persistent corruption allegations since Chavez became president in early 1999. However, as army chief of staff he is now the army's second highest-ranking officer after Baduel. Silva is also now in a position to restrain and replace Baduel if the army commander tries to rebel against Chavez, according to FAN sources close to both Baduel and Silva.

Chavez also appointed Maj. Gen. Ali de Jesus Uzcategui Duque, another hardcore chavista loyalist, commander of the CUFAN. In this capacity, Uzcategui Duque has direct command and control over a national internal defense strategy called Plan Republica, which has a Caracas metropolitan area component called Plan Avila. These security plans would become active if Venezuela were destabilized internally by civil uprisings or armed rebellions. The orders for executing these plans come directly from the CUFAN commander in response to presidential directives. However, the CUFAN chief also has the nominal command-and-control authority to countermand any military orders the president disagrees with, even if they come from the army commander or defense minister.

These military appointments indicate that Chavez is circling the wagons around the presidential palace and putting loyal officers in key command-and- control posts where they can neutralize Baduel if he tries to turn against the president. Why has Chavez not simply fired Baduel? Reportedly, the president worries that dismissing Baduel instead of allowing him to retire after completing his career could trigger unrest within the army. Baduel reportedly is popular with the army's elite parachutist and armored brigades based near the central Venezuelan cities of Maracay and Valencia. As army commander, he also controls the third army division's units based in Fort Tiuna.

In this context, the reports that Chacon could replace Rangel suggest that Chavez thinks that he could be the victim of a palace coup. Heightening these fears, Chavez cannot be sure where his close ally, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, stands in this internal power struggle. Castro reportedly has close ties to both Rodriguez and Rangel. Castro also wants secure long-term access to Venezuela's crude oil, worth over $1 billion a year to Cuba. To make certain that access continues, Castro has more than 25,000 Cuban government personnel in Venezuela.

Chavez has claimed for months that the Bush administration is plotting his assassination. Chavez also has said publicly that Castro personally provided him with intelligence of such a U.S.-backed assassination conspiracy. In February, members of Chavez's personal security detail shot an unidentified man at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The incident, never officially explained, occurred soon after Chavez started charging that the U.S. government wants to kill him.

Chavez could be correct in assuming that someone wants to kill him. However, instead of blaming the U.S. government, Chavez possibly should look for his Brutus inside his own ranks, where many chavistas appear to be seriously considering a Bolivarian Revolution without him at the helm.



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