August 31, 2008
Under new regulations decreed by President Hugo Chávez just three weeks ago, Venezuela's military will undergo the most ambitious restructuring plan in more than a century, remodeling itself in many aspects on the Cuban military.
The new legislation enacted by Chávez places the ''popular Bolivarian militias'' directly under the command of the president, promotes the role of social intelligence networks similar to the Cuban revolutionary defense committees and gives the president unprecedented powers over the armed forces.
The measure also allows the military to take on civilian functions from the previously banned, such as the intelligence network that will now operate through the thousands of community centers around the country.
''The new legislation governing the armed forces militarizes the society and puts citizens under military order,'' explained Rocio San Miguél, a military expert that heads Control Ciudadano, a watchdog group that monitors the Venezuelan military.
Chávez has justified the changes and recent acquisitions of more than $4 billion in weaponry, primarily from Russia, by arguing that Venezuela needs to be prepared for an invasion by ''imperialist'' forces and that the population must mobilize to defend the nation in the event of an attack.
But Control Ciudadano notes that the legislation requires the military to be the ''organization, planning, management and control of a national intelligence and military counterintelligence system,'' without establishing guidelines or limits that restrict the activity.
''The military will have no restrictions or limits on obtaining information about all sectors, public and private, other than a threat against national security,'' said San Miguél.
Last month, Chávez withdrew legislation governing intelligence and counterintelligence issues that he had presented to the National Assembly, where it was met with strong protests by various sectors that denounced the laws as overreaching.
Allowing the military to carry out intelligence functions amid civilians, said Enrique Prieto Silva, a retired general and expert on military legislation, means the ``militarization of a police function.''
The issue of popular militias also is important, according to the experts.
According to Article 46 of the new law, the militia serves more functions than all of the other branches of the military services and is directly governed by the executive.
The article says that the militia can ``contribute and advise in the creation and consolidation of the Committees of Integral Defense of the Community Councils.''
It also states the militia can ``record, process and present the information of the Community Councils, public and private institutions, necessary for the creation of plans, programs, projects of integral development for the nation and national mobilizations.''
Finally, the article states that the militia has the task of ``coordinating with organizations, entities and dependencies of the public and private sector, the creation and organization of the Reserve Combatant Corps that will depend administratively on the militia, for the purpose of contributing to the Integral Defense of the Nation.''
These dispositions ''activate a system of vigilance over society that allows the militia to become involved in every aspect of civilian life, practically without any limits,'' noted San Miguel.
According to Control Ciudadano, Articles 78 and 80 ``transform the paradigm of command and hierarchy that has been in practice in Venezuela for the past 100 years.''
Article 78 states that only the president has the authority to appoint the military command. ''Previously, these functions were shared with the Defense Minister and the hierarchy already in place at each institution, to achieve a balance. Now that faculty is exclusive to the president,'' noted Control Ciudadano.
Article 80 establishes that ``military personnel in all grades or hierarchies will be subordinate to the officer named in command.''
''This means that a division general can be subordinate to a lieutenant, if command is conferred by the President,'' the study noted.
It is a ''break in obedience and discipline, favoring loyalty above hierarchy and obedience, basic principles of all military organizations,'' said Orlando Ochoa Teran, a private security consultant and expert in military intelligence, based in New York.
The modifications promoted by Chávez ''emulate the process of military substitution employed by Fidel Castro in Cuba,,'' Ochoa said.