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
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
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 --
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,
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