Could Venezuela's Reliance on Army Spread?
- (This background article was written prior to
yesterday's unsuccessful boss's strike. The
oil industry, whose workers just got a hefty
pay raise, ignored the strike call.
(Real facts mixed with imaginative spin here.
Please read and savor every precious word.
(Read carefully: rightist generals WEARING
THEIR MILITARY UNIFORMS, now up to
100, publicly call on their democratically-
elected commander in chief to resign and
say they'll "stay put until Mr. Chavez leaves
office."!! Chavez's response to these
disloyal troops has been imaginative and
shows a lively sense of humor as well:
("He has ordered the army quartermasters to
organize a giant street market that will offer
cut-rate ingredients for cooking Christmas
tamales and other holiday delicacies.")
December 2, 2002
Could Venezuela's Reliance
On Army Spread to Neighbors?
By MARC LIFSHER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
CARACAS, Venezuela -- In early October, a small group of
civilian political and business leaders had drinks in an
exclusive bar with Gen. Enrique Medina Gomez, a budding
opponent of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. They
urged the handsome, cigar-puffing general to play an active
role in protests against the regime.
"You could be the most visible head of the opposition," a
senior executive implored. "You could be a hero."
The general, dressed for the occasion in a conservative
business suit, remained uncommitted. Two weeks later, he
made his move. Wearing a bemedaled uniform and carrying a
swagger stick, he led a group of 14 dissident generals and
admirals in a surprise, unarmed takeover of a square in the
upscale Altamira neighborhood. The officers, whose numbers
have swelled to more than 100 in the past month, vowed to
stay put until Mr. Chavez leaves office.
Military coups are out of fashion these days in Latin
America. But that hasn't prevented civilians and active-duty
officers like Gen. Medina from trying to entice Venezuela's
armed forces to make the president resign -- and there is
growing concern that such tactics, if successful, might
encourage soldiers elsewhere on the continent to put tanks
in the streets whenever a civilian government confronts a
"It's wrong for the leaders of civil society and the labor
unions to start flirting with the military," warns Jose
Miguel Vivanco, director of the Latin American section of
Washington-based Human Rights Watch, noting that it isn't so
easy to get soldiers back in the barracks after they've had
a taste of political power.
Despite rising levels of poverty, corruption and
misgovernment, hemispheric leaders say they are loath to
return to the days of the mid-1960s to mid-1980s when
military governments ruled almost every nation in South
America. Over the past 10 years, Latin America has suffered
only six coup attempts, all failures. By comparison, during
the same period in Africa, six governments have fallen to
coups, and dozens of leaders have lost their jobs -- or
their lives -- in civil wars, insurrections and invasions.
Lately, though, there are signs that Latin taboos against
military involvement in politics are loosening. In Ecuador,
a new president-elect, Lucio Gutierrez, also is a retired
army colonel. He temporarily overthrew a constitutional
president in 2000 at the head of an uprising of indigenous
people. And in Paraguay, another former coup maker, Lino
Oviedo, wants to return from exile to run for president.
Now, South America's newfound political maturity and
commitment to democratic rule faces a major test in
Venezuela . Mr. Chavez, though popularly elected president
in 1998, is a cashiered army paratroop commander who led a
bungled putsch in 1992. Ironically, his own generals ousted
him last April after refusing to follow orders to repress
civilian demonstrators. Two days later, some of those same
commanders brought Mr. Chavez back when the interim
president tried to shut down the congress and supreme court.
The four-year, self-styled revolutionary government of Mr.
Chavez has cleaved the oil-rich country into two hate-filled
camps. Polls show that 70% of the people oppose the
president and don't want him to serve out his term until
2006. Many of the 30% -- mainly poor "Chavistas" -- say they
are willing to fight and die for their leader. Mr. Chavez
similarly has split the 70,000-member armed forces. Gen.
Medina and other military critics accuse the president of
politicizing a once-professional officer corps by holding
partisan rallies on army bases, putting generals in charge
of big-budget social-welfare programs and basing promotions
on ideological purity rather than merit.
Mr. Chavez also fostered a more politically active military
by drawing up a 1999 constitution that gives all citizens,
including active-duty soldiers, the right to deny
recognition to a government that violates national "values,
principles or democratic guarantees." Analysts say the
language is dangerously destabilizing and accuse Mr. Chavez
of using it in a foolhardy attempt to justify his failed
"Latin America has shed a lot of blood to get the armed
forces out of politics, but Chavez has set the process back
by decades," says Teodoro Petkoff, an independent leftist
who edits the Caracas newspaper Tal Qual.
Many Venezuelan opposition leaders say they are turning to
the military out of desperation, and fear that Mr. Chavez
will try to impose a Cuban-style authoritarian regime. Gen.
Medina says he is uninterested in political power and wants
the armed forces to take a back seat to civilians in any
post-Chavez transition government.
But in tense, pre-Christmas Caracas, the presence of the
military is hard to avoid. The occupation of the square by
Gen. Medina and his uniformed cohorts has created a rallying
point for thousands of Mr. Chavez's foes. A general strike
of undetermined length is set to begin this morning.
Organizers, including business federations and labor unions,
hope to paralyze the economy and halt crucial oil shipments
to the U.S. from the world's fifth-largest exporter of
crude, gasoline and lubricants. The opposition's aim is to
drive Mr. Chavez from office or at least get him to agree,
in peace talks sponsored by the Organization of American
States, to call early elections. Many anti-Chavistas expect,
and even hope, that violence from the government's street
toughs could cause enough looting and anarchy to force the
military's silent majority to tell the president it's time
for him to leave for good.
Mr. Chavez denounces Gen. Medina and his civilian allies as
fascist coupsters (golpistas, in Spanish). He says he won't
resign, even if opponents succeed in holding a nonbinding
referendum that goes overwhelmingly against him. Both the
general strike and a possible coup attempt would be "crushed
by the people and the armed forces," he says.
So far, the high commands of the Caracas garrison and the
paramilitary National Guard appear to be behind their
president. Two weeks ago, two loyal generals put hundreds of
troops on the streets, armed with assault rifles, bazookas
and machine guns and backed by light armored vehicles.
Military units seized control of stations belonging to the
main Caracas police force, which had been under the control
of the city's opposition high mayor. Anti-Chavez
demonstrators were greeted with barrages of tear gas and
shotgun pellets when they tried to march on occupied
Mr. Chavez is employing a lighter touch in using his
military allies to stave off Monday's general strike and a
possible coup. He has ordered the army quartermasters to
organize a giant street market that will offer cut-rate
ingredients for cooking Christmas tamales and other holiday
Write to Marc Lifsher at marc.lifsher@...
Updated December 2, 2002