The Miami Herald
May. 19, 2002

Chávez purging military after coup


  CARACAS - Amid new threats of a military coup, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has purged nearly half the armed forces leadership and replaced it
  with younger officers believed to be loyal to his leftist ideals.

  Chávez has removed so many generals and admirals since a failed coup last month that he has been obliged to appoint some lower-ranking colonels in
  their place, further irking proud commanders by bypassing requirements that top officers fill top posts.

  But the crackdown has not stopped secret groups of mid-level officers from issuing threats, including one last weekend, to topple Chávez unless he
  amends his populist pro-Cuban course and efforts to politicize the military.

  Chávez promised there would be no ''witch hunt'' against the military. Only six senior officers have been officially charged in the coup that saw Chávez
  deposed and then reinstated. But publicly announced command changes since his April 14 return to power show a massive purge in the 80,000-member
  armed forces.

  In the past month, the president has axed 106 of the 260 generals and admirals, leaving them without posts. But he's allowing them to stay in service, at
  least until new promotions scheduled for July.

  Another 500 lower-ranking officers were sent home under suspicion of supporting the coup or failing to back the president on April 11, said Fernando
  Ochoa Antich, a retired army general and staunch Chávez critic.

  They include the commanders of all five infantry and tank battalions stationed in central Caracas, critical to any potential coup, plus 30 members of the
  secret police, known as DISIP.


  Far from creating stability, the crackdown has increased the political fragility of the world's fourth-largest oil producer, which remains bitterly divided
  between backers and foes of Chávez's avowed ''peaceful revolution'' on behalf of poor Venezuelans.

  ''A new coup is the topic of the day because the military see a clear danger to themselves if Chávez keeps turning them into a praetorian guard,'' said
  Aníbal Romero, a political analyst who teaches at the Navy War College.

  DISIP's new head, Lt. Col. Miguel Rodriguez Torres, served on Chávez's staff after his election in 1998. He later served as chief organizer of the Bolivarian
  Circles, groups of pro-Chávez civilians allegedly armed and trained by the government to help defend the president's revolution.

  Chávez also gave top posts to three generals who helped return him to power: Alí Uzcátegui as head of Military Intelligence; Luis García Montoya as army
  chief; and paratrooper brigade chief Raúl Baduel as commander of the 4th Army Division.

  Gen. Lucas Rincón, who was commander in chief of the armed forces on April 11 but did not join the coup, at least according to Chávez, was promoted to
  minister of defense and has retained day-to-day command of the military.

  Chávez has long angered many officers by insisting that they support his ''revolution,'' promoting friends over more qualified candidates, creating the
  Bolivarian Circles and befriending Cuba and Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

  'The military is no longer a solid monolithic block. It is split into Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, revolutionaries and `institutionalists' who reject all politics,''
  said retired Vice Admiral Mario Iván Carratú.


  Chávez said last week that he had information that civilian opponents were ''trying to urge on the military'' to stage another coup. ''For those who may
  think that Chávez has a wounded wing, they are wrong,'' he warned.

  But his purges have only fueled the discontent within the armed forces, Ochoa and Carratú added, especially because Chávez has appointed some
  colonels to posts traditionally reserved for generals.

  Gen. Guillermo Rangél, once regarded as a radical Chavista, sparked a standoff last week when he refused to turn over command of the 41st Armored
  Brigade to a colonel. Eventually, he turned it over to his immediate superior, who then turned it over to the colonel.

  Chávez, who under his tailor-made 1999 constitution has the power to make all military assignments and promotions, appears to have tried to appoint
  loyalists to the newly vacant slots.


  But loyalties are doubtful in today's divided Venezuelan military. Most of the senior officers that Chávez sent home after April 14 had been promoted to
  their ranks by the president himself since 1998, Carratú said.

  But the greatest danger of a coup, all analysts said, comes not from unemployed generals but from mid-level officers known as Comacates, a Spanish
  acronym for Lieutenant Colonels, Majors, Captains and Lieutenants.

  ''A general sees the present. A colonel sees the day after tomorrow. But a lieutenant has to look down 30 years of career,'' Romero said. ``And while
  generals command big units, Comacates command real troops and tanks.''

  A clandestine Comacate communiqué circulated last week in Caracas branded Chávez a ''traitor'' for his friendship with Fidel Castro and vowed: ``At the
  next failure of the government it will not be the generals going out. It will be we soldiers of the motherland.''

  Chávez has dismissed that and other similar communiqués as fakes, but journalists who have talked to self-described Comacate leaders say they believe
  the declarations are the work of secret cells of officers opposed to Chávez.

  A Comacate coup is likely to be more violent than April 11 because, instead of generals persuading Chávez to resign, it would involve small units such as
  infantry battalions trying to push him out, and possibly battling pro-Chávez units, Ochoa said.

  Ironically, Chávez himself, while an army lieutenant colonel in 1992, led a failed coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, in which no
  participant was above the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was jailed and later pardoned.

  ''There's going to be another coup here,'' predicted Henry Ramos, president of the opposition Democratic Action party, not by generals but by ``officers
  with command posts and troops.''