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Could Venezuela's Reliance on Army Spread?

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  • Walter Lippmann
    (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
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2002
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      (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
      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?
      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
      1992 coup.

      "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
      precinct houses.

      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
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