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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez: Paymaster General

From The Economist

Jul 7th 2005 | CARACAS | The price of peace in the barracks. ALTHOUGH he was democratically elected as Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez is a former army officer and often says he heads a “civilian-military” regime. Many officers have senior government jobs. In this and other ways, the armed forces are the mainstay of his “Bolivarian revolution”, named after South America's independence hero, which lacks a strong political party. His opponents dream that it will be the army which eventually topples the president, as it almost did in 2002. Loyalists retort that they can dream on. Certainly, the evidence suggests that Mr Chávez now has a tighter grip over the armed forces—but at a price. The constitution drawn up under Mr Chávez gives the president sole authority over promotions. He has used this to purge the more talkative dissidents. On July 4th, he appointed a close ally from the navy, Orlando Maniglia, as defence minister.

But murmuring in the ranks may not have entirely ceased. A military ceremony on June 24th was cancelled for fear of an assassination attempt against Mr Chávez. At a scaled-down version, held at Fort Tiuna, a massive military complex in Caracas, the president called for “unity, unity, unity”. He also announced pay rises of 50-60% for the armed forces. To some, that looked like an attempt to buy military loyalty; it sparked protests from civilian public employees, whose increase was less than half that.

Mr Chávez is also providing more kit. The United States and Colombia have questioned Venezuela's recent arms purchases from Russia, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and a dozen or so helicopters, due to begin arriving soon. But it is hard to argue that these are offensive weapons, or that they disrupt the regional military balance.

One potential source of disharmony is the national guard. Though treated as the army's poor relation, it is 23,000-strong and has some heavy weaponry. It was once a hotbed of opposition to Mr Chávez. The government recently abolished one of its regional commands, citing corruption, and turned over its responsibilities to the army. Officials felt obliged to deny any plan to disband the guard. Another possible cause of military discontent is Mr Chávez's close ties with Cuba. Fidel Castro was recently named as the patron of a graduating class of officers—some say in a bid to flush out dissidents.

Mr Chávez is shaking up the country's military doctrine and the role of the armed forces. He has repeatedly claimed that the United States has plans to assassinate him, and even to invade Venezuela to grab its oil deposits. He is setting up a new force of reserves, which he claims will eventually comprise up to 2m members.

In practice, the reserve will be a popular militia under Mr Chávez's direct command. Its main job may be to defend the Bolivarian revolution against its internal opponents. Whatever the revolution's denouement, Mr Chávez's lasting legacy will include politicised armed forces. The revolution, as the president has often declared, may be peaceful—but it is armed.

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