PHIL GUNSON / STEVEN DUDLEY
July 26, 2007
The outgoing defense minister has criticized President Hugo Chávez's military strategy, a type of dissent not seen before.
Venezuela's annual round of military promotions this month has been accompanied by signs of tension within the armed forces, including a speech by the outgoing defense minister critical of some of President Hugo Chávez's policies.
The main rift appears to be between senior officers who favor a professional army trained for conventional war and those who favor a large civilian militia trained for guerrilla resistance to an occupying force -- like U.S. troops.
In a clear sign that Chávez -- who persistently raises the specter of U.S. military threats despite just as persistent U.S. denials -- favors the second option, the president last week replaced Defense Minister Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel with Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceño, commander of the reserves.
''The people and the soldiers are as one,'' Chávez said during the hand-over ceremony.
Baduel, one of the key officers who helped Chávez return from a military coup in 2002, went into retirement after a 30-year-career -- but not without an apparent dig at the president's efforts to create ``21st century socialism.''
''We should invent socialism of the 21st century . . . but not in a chaotic or disorderly fashion,'' Baduel said at the ceremony. ``Before we redistribute wealth, we have to create it. We can't redistribute what we don't have.''
Taking a jab at Chávez's control of all government branches, he added: ``It should be clear that a socialist production system is not incompatible with a profoundly democratic political system, with checks and balances and separation of powers.''
Baduel wound up his speech without uttering the new Cuban-inspired salute that Chávez has recently imposed on the armed forces -- ``Fatherland, socialism or death.''
Chávez, a former army lieutenant colonel who led a failed military coup in 1992 before being elected president in 1998, has stepped up his socialist ''revolution'' since winning reelection in December.
While opposition groups have increased their protests, the military has appeared largely loyal to Chávez since the 2002 coup, in which senior armed forces officers detained Chávez and announced he had resigned. With help from Baduel and other officers, he returned to power 48 hours later.
The president has since forced suspect officers to resign or stay at home, and promoted loyalists to key positions while increasing some benefits.
Until last week's ceremony, Baduel appeared to be firmly in the Chávez camp and had kept any criticisms of Chávez to himself. But his parting comments, analysts said, reflected the tensions between officers who favor preparing for conventional and guerrilla wars.
'They talk of `asymmetrical warfare,' but their weapons acquisitions correspond to a symmetrical [conventional] war,'' said retired Army Gen. Raúl Salazar, who served as Chávez's first defense minister.
Chávez has purchased Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships and hinted that Russian submarines may be next on the shopping list -- all weapons that would be used in a conventional war.
Yet at the same time, he has purchased 100,000 AK assault rifles -- the preferred weapon of insurgencies across the globe -- and shifted the military's stated mission from conventional warfare to fighting an ''asymmetrical'' war of the type currently being waged by insurgent forces in Iraq.
The reserves that Gen. Rangel Briceño commanded until last week would be a key force in any guerrilla war. In a recent interview before he was appointed defense minister, Rangel Briceño said the reserves were training 110,000 men and women and hoped to have 15 million some day.
''Everyone who's not in the military will be in the reserves,'' he said. ``We have no age restrictions. We have no physical restrictions. We don't exclude anyone. We are hoping for everyone's participation.''
Chávez agrees with this emphasis, said retired Army Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, who was head of the presidential general staff until earlier this month despite having been appointed by Chávez to help build his new political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
''The reserves will dedicate themselves to the defense of Venezuelan territory through a war of resistance,'' Muller told The Miami Herald. He confirmed that Baduel and others wanted to maintain a more traditional fighting force.
But the existence of such a large reserve force, at the command of a president with such clear ideological intentions, has raised concerns among some Venezuelans.
''If in every town there's a reserve unit with a political agenda, that's a serious threat to democracy and for the Venezuelan people,'' Salazar said. ``Because they're going to look for a military solution to every problem.''
Muller sees no problem with the armed forces being a political force.
''The armed forces are a reflection of the political system to which they belong,'' he said. ``All armies are politicized. We don't come from a void. We have to pay taxes. We have problems at home. This idea that the armed forces are neutral is a farce.''
Chávez clearly sees the military as a political force.
At the end of the change over ceremony last week, an officer barked out the salute, ``Fatherland, socialism or death!''
To which Chávez responded with the rest of the Cuban slogan:``Venceremos -- We will triumph.''