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Venezuela military falters without Chavez

25 January 2013, 10:31

Caracas - Hugo Chavez's long sick leave in Cuba has created serious obstacles for the Venezuelan military, which looks to the ailing president for hands-on leadership as its commander-in-chief, analysts say.

Chavez, aged 58, is a soldier by training and during his 14 years in power has transformed the once symbolic role into one with direct operational control.

Promotions, appointments, salary increases, the annual budget and the movement of troops in the event of a conflict all fall under the purview of the leftist leader.

The president, says expert Luis Alberto Butto, has "the last word on all the military's operational and administrative matters."

But since Chavez departed for Cuba on 10 December to undergo his fourth round of cancer surgery, there has been a lapse in those controls, according to Butto.

While Vice President Nicolas Maduro has assumed many of his responsibilities, Butto says his brief does not extend to the military.

"The responsibility of commander-in-chief of the armed forces cannot be delegated," said Butto, who is with the Centre for Latin American Security Studies at the Universidad Simon Bolivar.

"There is a breakdown in the armed forces because the figure that has to give instructions to the operational strategic command is not there," he said.

If public disturbances were to break out, for example, there would be "enormous confusion," he predicted.

Chavez assumed greater military powers in recent years, as he intensified his quest for a socialist, "Bolivarian revolution."

"Before, the commander in chief of the armed forces was a symbolic figure that reaffirmed civilian control over the military, but it was not an operational rank," Butto said.

Now the president has all the trappings of high military rank -"a uniform, insignias and a standard."

'Chavista' military

In addition to the authorities granted to him under the law, Chavez has taken a hands-on approach to the military, and it in turn has become deeply influenced by his socialist, anti-imperialist world view, said political scientist Jose Antonio Rivas.

"Chavez exerts leadership in a highly personal and top down manner. His ascendency is unquestionable," said Rivas, author of a book on the militarization of Venezuelan politics.

From the start, Chavez has taken care to bring men and women in uniform into the political process, thereby assuring that his Bolivarian revolution is "peaceful but armed".

And he has used the military's logistical resources to support the government's social programs.

Chavez, who was an army lieutenant colonel when he led a failed 1992 coup against then president Carlos Andres Perez, was himself the victim of a coup that removed him from power for two days in 2002.

After that episode, the armed forces underwent a major purge, and Chavez put his own stamp on the institution.

The word Bolivarian was added to the formal name of the armed forces, and top military commanders began adopting slogans that included the phrase "socialist fatherland". Last year, Chavez asserted that the armed forces were "Chavista."

He also created a militia of armed civilians that report directly to the presidency.
Meanwhile, retired military officers, many of them former comrades of Chavez, have been given important political positions.

Currently, 11 of the country's 23 state governors, eight cabinet ministers, 20 directors of autonomous institutes, about 30 ambassadors, and the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, are from military backgrounds.

Before going to Cuba for his latest round of cancer treatment, Chavez named Maduro, a former union organizer and lawmaker, as his political heir in the event he became incapacitated.

But if new elections are held, whoever wins the presidency would also become the armed force's top officer, creating what Butto described as an "irresolvable contradiction" for civilian rule in Venezuela.



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