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The militarization of Venezuela

By Andrés Oppenheimer | LA NACION LINE

19.07.05 MIAMI - The longest lasting impact of Venezuela's Presidents, Hugo Chavez's, self proclaimed revolution, will likely not be his incendiary discourse against US "Imperialism" nor his praise of Cuba, but something that hasn't called international attention as much: the politicization of the armed forces and the militarization of the country.

Last week, in the swearing in ceremony of the new defense minister, Orlando Maniglia, Chavez proclaimed that the Venezuelan Armed Forces are "anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist" in nature and thus opposed to the US.

In another ceremony, Chavez asserted that "the Cuban and Venezuelan revolution are one, the Cuban people and Venezuelan people are now one people" and that Venezuela and Cuba would jointly defend each other against a potential US invasion. US government personnel deny the existence of a plan to attack Venezuela and affirm that the idea only exists in Chavez's mind,

Despite the fact that Chavez's increasing rhetorical belligerence is no news - in fact, his revolutionary fervor has increased proportionally to oil prices, which have risen from US$ 9 when he assumed power, in 1999, to US$ 61 currently – he is taking dramatic steps towards restructuring the Venezuelan armed forces, changes that will most likely affect what remains of Venezuelan democracy for a long time to come.

The Territorial Guard

"People do not take him seriously, he has been doing all that he says he will do – says Alberto Garrido, a military analyst from Caracas-. He has wanted to give this a folk connotation, but this is hardly folkloric."

Consider the most recent events:

On July 5th, Chavez announced the creation of a Territorial Guard, a clandestine fighting civilian force and would report directly to the president. Chavista legislator, Nestor Leon Heredia was cited by the media saying that the group is inspired on the Iraqui resistance.

Last month Chavez announced the expansion of the military reserve, from up to 100.000 currently, to 500.000 civilians in the short term. The commander of the armed forces, Armando Laguna, has said publicly that the Navy has conducted its first military exercise with civilians on June 15th.

After three years Chavez appeared in public wearing military fatigues. Following the failed coup of 2002, the President had stopped wearing the uniform at the request of his generals.

Simultaneously, Chavez bought 15 Mi-17 Russian attack helicopters, more than 100.000 Russian made AK-103, 10 troop transport airplanes and patrol boats from Spain, and 24 light attack Super Tucano airplanes from Brazil, according to official announcements. Venezuela is also negotiating the purchase of 50 Mig-29 Russian airplanes.

Garrido told me that Venezuela is embarked on a Continental Revolutionary project, shared with Cuba, which Venezuelan and Cuban military refer to as "integral national defense". "According to the new military doctrine, the monopoly of the arms ceases to belong to the traditional Armed Forces, and goes to be distributed in three superimposed levels: the Institutional Armed Forces, the military reserve and the one with all the citizens, which is called Territorial Guard ", he remarked

Despite Garrido's thought that Chavez has reasons to believe that there could be a US attack, the majority of Chavez's opposition in Venezuela and in the US says that the idea is ludicrous and that what the president is in truth seeking is to create a Police State.

"The Territorial Guard is defined as a Death Squadron, with the impunity that strives from its direct dependence on the chief of state and its clandestine character", declared Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, a Venezuelan opposition leader.

My conclusion: if Chavez does half of what he says, his restructuring of the armed forces – and his distribution of weapons to civilians – will be a formidable obstacle to democracy in Venezuela, regardless of how long Chavez remains in power or of who succeeds him.

Translated by Doroteo Arango

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