Does Chavez trust Venezuela's military?

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was briefly overthrown in a coup on April 11, 2002, he was restored to power by a corps of elite troops who effectively proved their loyalty. And for that, he owes them a debt of gratitude, something he appeared to show in film clips back then, sweatily praising the troops' patriotism, and defiantly waving a crucifix — like a weapon.

But that was three years ago, and a lot has happened since. And much of it suggests Chavez's relationship with his military is on the rocks. News events in the last few months show that although he's got plenty of rabid anti—Americanism on the surface, his real fears are of his own military, and for that he is attempting to outmaneuver them.

Last Friday Chavez abruptly ended decades of military exchanges with U.S. armed forces, something that stunned everyone involved. What's more, Chavez's bizarre claim (since denied by the U.S.) that he detained American military personnel for spying, seems to be more evidence that he is beating the drum of anti—Americanism because of an internal power struggle. The depth of the problem can be seen in the background.

For 35 years, Venezuela and the U.S. have had some of the warmest, most fraternal military relations of any two nations. Quite outside any political considerations, the professional respect U.S. and Venezuelan troops have for each other has led to many cooperative endeavors between the two countries.

Chavez's abrupt ending of this long liaison signals he's very worried about his soldiers' contacts with U.S. forces. Since nearly everyone outside his own radical base in Venezuela hates Hugo Chavez, it's logical to think a few Venezuelan soldiers might be telling U.S. military intelligence what life is like in Chavez's increasingly totalitarian state. Or what their Cuban masters are up to.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Chavez's distrust of the military goes much deeper than that, to the rat's nest of internal politics that is churning up in the increasingly unstable Chavez regime.

The highest—ranking Chavez loyalist with Venezuelan military ties is an ex—military man, Diosdado Cabello, who was late last year ousted from his Minister of Infrastructure position (a demotion from vice president), and exiled to become governor of Miranda state. He's been loyal to Chavez for 15 years. But now in Miranda, he's isolated from the hustle and bustle of Caracas and its inner—circle political intrigue. Exile was an effort to make Cabello less of a player. Miranda state's capital is not far from Caracas but for practical purposes, amounts to Khrushchev sending Malenkov to manage a hydroelectric power station in Kazakhstan after many years of faithful party service. Obviously, Chavez doesn't trust Cabello, who, unlike Malenkov, is believed to be a man of at least some actual executive ability. Out in the figurative boondocks, he seems to be continuing to grow in popularity, and news reports say he also seems to be amassing money somehow.  Both of which signal continuing potential problems for Chavez.

It gets even more interesting to look at Cabello's main political rival, a Chavez loyalist and party buffoon named Jesse Chacon, who's Interior & Justice Minister. He's not in exile, he's actually been moved upward fairly recently from Information & Communications Minister. He reportedly has the opposite effect on Venezuela's troops as Cabello. Chacon is a powerful leftist politician who falls in love with every guerrilla in the midst he comes in contact with. He's a communist fanatic who's focused on internal security — the block committees, rabble rousers, and grassroots organizers; what the Sandinistas once called 'revolution from below.' He's in close with political muscle and goons. And he's just wild about Sandalistas from abroad wearing Che tee shirts. More to the point, it's not Venezuela's military he consorts with, but Venezuela's military's historic enemy: Colombia's dreaded Marxist FARC guerrillas. He's employed some of them and their relatives in city offices. Chacon's ascent doesn't go down well with Venezuela's troops who have expended blood and treasure over decades to destroy these deadly narcoterrorists and many don't appreciate this lunatic giving them succor.  

The political rivalry ensures potential for volatility. But there also is the less predictable threat of indiscipline in the armed forces themselves to give Chavez more reasons to  worry. Ever since Colombian bounty hunters snatched a high—ranking FARC terrorist from Caracas last December, stuffed him in a car trunk and drove him back to the Colombian border to face justice, Chavez has learned that at least some Venezuelan troops can be bought off by anyone out there who's willing to offer them money. The FARC terrorist, Rodrigo Granda, had walking around freely in the streets of Caracas, addressing a Sandalista conference that weekend, with Chavez's approval. That was why Chavez reacted with such fury when he realized Granda's capture was assisted by Venezuelan security forces who were paid off by the Colombian government. With that the case, Chavez realized they could have been bought by anyone. To do anything. And bought pretty cheaply.

The stakes are rising, because Chavez has gone on a military spending spree with his country's oil earnings in this year, convinced that the U.S. has a plan to invade. It raises the specter of a military he cannot trust becoming a bigger player in Venezuelan internal politics, just as it is more volatile. And on this line, it will be very bad news if the U.S. doesn't invade.

But although shoveling money is Chavez's principal means of buying loyalty, there is reason to wonder whether, even armed to the teeth with the latest weapons, whether Venezuela's troops will remain loyal. The broader picture suggests they won't. It was explained in a masterly way by Herbert Meyer in his essay 'A Revolutionary Change' showing why troops in revolutionary situations are less likely to fire on demonstrators than in the past. Given the depth of popular opposition that exists in Venezuela today, against the example of the huge people—power demonstrations seen in Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia, there is no reason to think that day won't come in Venezuela. With that reluctance to shoot, with the discontent in the military amid political churning, with the indiscipline of the troops, there is ample reason to wonder whether or not the Venezuelan military will come again to Chavez's rescue. You can see why he was afraid of their exposure to U.S. troops. He may have lost their loyalty already.