Hugo Chávez' military strength and problem

Last month's "No" vote in the referendum on changing the Venezuelan constitution, despite Hugo Chávez's energetic campaigning for "Sí", came as something of a surprise, given his continuing high approval ratings. It showed that not everybody who voted for him (over 60% in the last election) is willing to follow him anywhere he wants to lead, suggesting that the Venezuelan electorate is maturing and discriminating. The other surprise, to those who think of him as a dictator, was that Chávez accepted the result.

Jorge Castañeda, Mexican politólogo and former foreign minister (under President Vicente Fox), offered a cynical explanation of that second surprise: that army officers who knew that the vote was negative (hours before any public announcement) let him know that they would not tolerate fraud. (See Castañeda's article in El País, ¿Qué pasó en Venezuela?)

We can't know whether this is what really happened -- Castañeda's informed speculation is dubious, and his anti-Chávez bias is apparent. But Nikolas Kozloff's Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the United States (2006. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), originally published in 2006 and recently re-published as a paperback, includes two chapters suggesting that something like that is at least possible: "Chávez's Civil-Military Alliance" and "The Test of Chávez's Civil-Military Alliance" (pp. 71-104).

The "test" of his alliance with the military was the short-lived coup (Ap. 11-14, 2002), which Hugo survived by a hair, thanks to intervention of two generals (Carneiro & Baduel) and lower ranks, which changed the structure of the alliance in 2 ways: 1, allowing Chávez to identify and purge those most likely to betray his revolution, but 2, making very clear his dependence on those other officers who saved him but whose vision of the Bolivarian revolution does not depend entirely on his.

For more information and also some good laughs, see this video of Nikolas Kozloff on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Aug. 20, 2007.


Douglas said...

I have a question, not a comment from any kind of knowledge: are the Venezuelan generals, those in power now, revolutionaries the way generals were in Nasser's Egypt? Has Chavez been able to purge anyone in the General ranks who wasn't at least somewhat "Bolivarian?"

Would the military move against him if he tried for the term limit abolition again?

Baltasar Lotroyo said...

1) Yes -- or at least, those still on active duty profess to support the "Bolivarian revolution"; the other guys have been sacked.
2) I don't think even Hugo knows what they might do. Gen. Baduel (retired but still influential) came out strongly against the term-limit abolution and other constitutional changes. Others (in Castañeda's analysis) may have been willing to accept the changes, but only if the vote had gone that way. Which it didn't.