February 20, 1999

Expansion of military's role prompts fears in Venezuela

                  CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The president's plan to give the army a
                  bigger role in running Venezuela is provoking fears of a return to the days
                  of repressive military regimes in one of Latin America's oldest democracies.

                  President Hugo Chavez says Venezuela's 120,000-member armed
                  forces -- and former coup plotters like himself -- can help this oil-rich
                  but financially strapped country and bring order to a chaotic, corruption-riddled

                  The leader of a failed 1992 coup who took office February 2, Chavez has
                  named fellow coup participants to top posts including transportation minister,
                  secret police chief, tax chief and governor of Caracas.

                  He also appointed two active army colonels to key positions in the huge
                  state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela.

                  One former coup plotter was elected president of the Senate, and another
                  was re-elected governor of Zulia state in the heart of Venezuela's oil belt.

                  Chavez also has announced that he will boost the role of the army in
                  everyday life, sending thousands of soldiers to improve roads, build schools
                  and cultivate farms.

                  The moves have not been welcomed by all Venezuelans.

                  "We are going down a very dangerous path. The new president is a military
                  populist," said political scientist Anibal Romero.

                  Other critics say Chavez's plans are sending the wrong message at a time
                  when Latin America's fragile democracies are struggling to keep the military
                  in their barracks and out of politics.

                  The former paratrooper's actions are "an invitation to greater politicization of
                  the military, which is precisely what led to some of the worst aspects of the
                  authoritarian period in Latin America," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow
                  at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

                  But Chavez dismisses such concerns. "The armed forces should be prepared
                  to work for the development, the peace, the progress of our people," he said
                  at a February 4 gala military parade marking the seventh anniversary of his
                  failed putsch.

                  During the parade, the new president ordered former coup participants from
                  two military rebellions in 1992 back into the ranks of the armed forces,
                  calling them "heroes."

                  Military dictatorships and repressive civilian regimes ruled most of Latin
                  America until the 1980s, killing, torturing and "disappearing" thousands of
                  people. Today, all except Cuba have democratically elected governments,
                  but in many the military still wields great power.

                  "The subordination of the military to civilian rule, which everybody thought
                  would take place after the Cold War ended, is far from being achieved and
                  may be going in the wrong direction," says Shifter.

                  Venezuela was an oasis of democratic rule in Latin America during the Cold
                  War, with a tradition of free elections dating back to 1958.

                  But Chavez already has raised worries that he may become an army-backed
                  "caudillo" or political strongman similar to Peru's Alberto Fujimori.

                  On his first day in office, Chavez issued a presidential decree for a national
                  vote on forming a constituent assembly to write a new constitution -- with
                  Chavez deciding how assembly delegates would be chosen. And this past
                  week, he issued what many thought was a veiled warning of violence if the
                  Supreme Court rules the decree unconstitutional.

                  The moves have provoked intense criticism from opposition parties,
                  intellectuals and even a few Chavez supporters.

                  At his rallies, supporters don his trademark red paratrooper's beret -- a
                  militaristic image that worries some Venezuelan democrats. At one event last
                  week, Chavez himself appeared in combat fatigues. He often praises
                  Venezuela's last dictator, 85-year-old Marcos Perez Jimenez, who built
                  highways, bridges, tunnels and housing projects.

                  Many Venezuelans fed up with skyrocketing crime, rampant corruption and
                  failing public services support Chavez's plans for a growing role for the
                  military, which they view as one of the few institutions that still works.

                  "We see it as something positive," said Raul Cubas, director of PROVEA, a
                  leading Venezuelan human rights group, adding that the group obviously
                  would oppose any repression by the armed forces.

                  He says Venezuela's military is better trained than most in Latin America,
                  with many officers holding university degrees, and that in other countries
                  military units such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carry out useful
                  public projects.