Venezuela's military a key player amid uncertainty

Associated Press
** CORRECTS NAME OF PHOTOGRAPHER ** In this photo provided by Miraflores Presidential Press Office,  Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures during an event commemorating Venezuela's 200 years of independence at Miraflores palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday July 5, 2011.  Venezuela declared its independence from Spain in 1811.  (AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office)
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's military took center stage in the country's bicentennial celebrations Tuesday, and it likely would be a key player in the country's political future if Hugo Chavez were to be forced out of the presidency by cancer.

Thousands of troops marched beneath thundering fighter jets and helicopters while an announcer's booming voice declared that the nation is "free, socialist, independent."

Top brass appeared alongside Chavez, a former paratrooper, as he saluted and addressed the parade by television from his presidential palace across town. The image brought to mind other critical moments of Chavez's career, such as a 2002 coup against him, in which military loyalists came to his rescue.

Despite the appearance of a fully unified Bolivarian National Armed Force, some analysts and former officers say there are long-standing internal divisions between those who solidly stand behind Chavez's drive for socialism and those who do not. If Chavez's health worsens, some believe latent tensions could emerge within the ranks and the military could also end up playing a key role in any transition to new leadership.

"It's going to clearly be an important actor in the days to come," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst with IHS Global Insight in London. He said the military is "the only institution that would have the power to put pressure on the political actors to generate outcomes."

Much depends on Chavez's health, however.

In his address to the parade, the president said he was glad to be back after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in Cuba, but that his treatment prevented him from participating in the festivities.

"Here I am, in recuperation but still recovering. We've begun another long march," Chavez said. He spoke for about 12 minutes under a portrait of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, for whom his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement is named.

One officer stood at attention and addressed the president from atop a tank: "We will get out of the abyss together with you."

Troops in combat fatigues marched in formation, while others in colonial-era uniforms goose-stepped down the parade route outside the country's military headquarters. The parade marked the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain.

Some analysts say there are multiple factions within the armed forces, including a large contingent of midlevel officers who are professional soldiers, or "institutionalists," with no particular allegiance to Chavez's socialist movement. That has become a source of tension in recent years as Chavez has instituted the new salute repeated by soldiers: "Socialist fatherland or death!"

Analysts believe those midlevel officers would be inclined to insist on a constitutional transition of power in the event of the president's departure.

In contrast, Chavez's high command is openly in favor of his socialist project and loyal to him.

"We're going to see the high military command become increasingly politicized," said Rocio San Miguel, who leads a non-governmental organization that monitors security and defense issues in Venezuela.

"Soldiers have historically shown that they have a keen sense of smell to know the real alternatives of power, and to know when is the decline or fall of other powers," San Miguel said. She added that she isn't suggesting Chavez is in decline, and said much will depend on how his condition evolves.

Prominent Chavez opponent Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, said in an email that he believes Chavez was forced to return from Cuba "upon seeing the internal conflict in his own party with the main civilian leaders and in the armed forces."

Chavez's allies have strongly denied any such divisions, saying the military has been firmly behind the government during Chavez's nearly monthlong absence in Cuba.

While Chavez wasn't at the parade, he did meet with the presidents of Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay at the presidential palace. "Your presence is a very big, very powerful injection for our spirit, for our fight for life," Chavez told them afterward.

Chavez also made his presence felt on Twitter, where his account posted 10 messages Tuesday by 2 p.m., including seven within an hour during and after the parade.

One message thanked Russia "and its government and support," referring in part to the Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets that streaked over the parade ground outside Fort Tiuna. "Today, yes, we have a truly armed Armed Force! How moral! How mystic! Congratulations!"

Another message read: "Thanks to the People's Republic of China for its invaluable support in having our Armed Forces well equipped and trained."

China is Venezuela's biggest creditor, having agreed to more than $30 billion in loans to be paid back in oil, and has helped train Venezuelan troops. Chinese soldiers marched in the parade, along with those from several other nations, such as Russia and Mexico.

Addressing the troops via television, Chavez said: "Venezuela in the these last 10 years — the homeland of Bolivar, we soldiers and people — have recovered our independence."

"We're no longer a colony of any empire," Chavez said. He often refers to the United States as the "empire" and has sought to push back U.S. influence in Latin America.

He has defended Venezuela's purchases of Russian-made jets, helicopters and assault rifles as necessary to modernize the military and prepare for any possible conflict with the U.S., an idea U.S. officials have dismissed.

Chavez counts many current and former military officers among his closest confidants, some of them fellow participants in a failed coup that Chavez led in 1992. Following his surprise return from Cuba on Monday, Chavez wore the fatigues and red beret of his army days as he rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace.

Chavez also has taken steps in recent years to ensure tighter control and put in charge loyalists after a failed 2002 coup. Dissident officers briefly ousted him then until he was restored with the help of other generals amid street protests by his supporters.

"After the year 2002, the changes in the command structure... and the entire system of promotions in many ways has ensured President Chavez stability within the armed forces, and it would be very difficult for that to change anytime soon," said Juan Romero, a historian and professor at Venezuela's University of Zulia.

Chavez has also counted on support from one of the closest members of his inner circle, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the military's strategic operations commander. Chavez promoted him last year to general-in-chief after Rangel was heavily criticized by the opposition for saying in a newspaper interview that neither the military nor the public would accept an opposition victory in the country's 2012 presidential election. The general also said that officers are loyal to Chavez's socialist political project.

"Rangel Silva is the strong man at this time" within the military, San Miguel said.

In the past few years, Chavez has built up a parallel force of civilian militias, enlisting tens of thousands of men and women who go through regular boot-camp training. Government opponents have criticized the militias, calling them a force aimed at ensuring Chavez stays in power.

The next few months could reveal how the military's stance evolves.

"If President Chavez indeed starts to recover and continues being the strongman, the caudillo, the center of all the political dynamics in Venezuela, those tensions are going to be dissipated ahead of the presidential election of 2012," Moya-Ocampos said.

"If President Chavez again shows signs of weakness in a way which could open up again a behind-the-scenes debate over the succession of President Chavez, which is a very sensitive matter ... within the armed forces itself, then that could be another issue."

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Associated Press writer Jack Chang contributed to this report.

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