June 28, 2008
CARACAS -- Hundreds of Venezuelan military officers are no longer assigned duties and have been relegated to their homes, quietly pushed aside for their dissent under President Hugo Chávez, according to former military commanders and a watchdog group.
They say the officers have been sidelined for objecting to Chávez's socialist ideology, his push to form civilian militias and his ambiguous stance toward Colombia's leftist rebels.
Dissident army Gen. Angel Vivas Perdomo says he sought to defend the military's apolitical tradition when he asked the Supreme Court to toss out Chávez's order for troops to salute with the motto: ``fatherland, socialism or death -- we will triumph.''
''It's a motto from Fidel in Cuba that, on top of being unconstitutional, is absolutely undemocratic,'' Vivas Perdomo told The Associated Press in his first interview since challenging the motto in court in May.
He said the motto, previously used by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, ``takes away the right of every Venezuelan citizen to think differently and to disagree with socialism.''
About 800 officers are without formal duties because of their dissent, and many of them wait out their days at home, said Rocio San Miguel, who heads Citizen Control for Security, a nonprofit group that monitors public security issues.
Many of the 1,200 officers who have requested early retirement are also unhappy about the current state of the military, according to San Miguel, who says the information comes from active officers.
She said those cases combined represent nearly one-seventh of the Venezuelan military's 14,900 officers, pointing to significant divisions. Some dissident officers have reported being blocked from entering bases, she said.
Speaking to troops on Tuesday, Chávez denied accounts of military divisions, saying ``in the armed forces today, the people have a solid patriotic column -- a revolutionary, socialist column.''
Chávez, whose government has benefited from rising oil profits, has granted the military substantial pay raises and has spent billions of dollars buying Russian-made fighter jets, helicopters and assault rifles.
But a Defense Ministry spokeswoman and a top military aide would not respond to accounts of dissident officers being relieved of their duties, despite repeated requests from the AP.
One former defense minister, retired Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, said there is increasing concern among officers and within the ranks about ``how far (Chávez's) personal effort to stay in power will take the country.''
Baduel broke with Chávez last year by rejecting constitutional changes that would have allowed the president to run for re-election indefinitely. He said military discontent is apparent in officers' increasingly frequent requests for early retirement. He said others are without duties but haven't been given ``any significant reason.''
Vivas Perdomo was engineering director at the Defense Ministry until January 2007, when he asked to leave after complaining to his superiors that Chávez was imposing the socialist motto. He hasn't been assigned a new post since.
He refrained from commenting on discontent in the military but said he doesn't ''feel alone'' in his legal challenge.
''My objective is to comply with the constitution,'' Vivas Perdomo said, denying that his case is designed to incite the military against Chávez.
''I'm an institutional soldier, and I urge all my comrades in arms to do what they need to do and uphold their duty,'' Vivas Perdomo said. He said if the motto isn't rescinded, it could lead eventually to ``division, chaos and violence.''
The 51-year-old general said he turned to the Supreme Court after exhausting all avenues of internal appeal -- including a request to Defense Minister Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceno for the slogan to be eliminated.
Vivas Perdomo, who will retire in July, said he has not faced any sanctions as a result of the court case.
A retired vice admiral, Ivan Carratu Molina, said there also is ''enormous discontent'' within the ranks because of Chávez's ambiguous stances toward Colombia's leftist guerrillas, traditionally viewed as enemies by the military.
Carratu Molina, who headed the presidential guard in 1992 when Chávez led a failed military coup, said some troops are uncomfortable with snoops assigned to keep tabs on soldiers, Chávez's strengthening of reserve forces and the creation of ''rapid response groups'' of soldiers and civilian supporters to deal with potential crises.
''All of this has created a passive military attitude,'' he said. Some officers, he added, ''prefer to be sent home'' and continue collecting their salaries instead of ``living in that institutional hell.''