Venezuela's President Versus Military: Is Breach Widening?

 By: Juan Forero
The New York Times, March 26, 2002


Caracas, Venezuela, March 19 — Rear Adm. Carlos Molina had ruled out conspiring to overthrow President Hugo Chávez, but he still wanted to be heard. He wanted the country to know that he and other military men were steadfastly opposed to the left-leaning, mercurial Venezuelan president.

So, during a series of raucous anti-Chávez street protests last month, Admiral Molina decided on a course of action, he said in a recent interview. He put on his navy whites, called a news conference in a Caracas hotel and told Venezuelans to "unite to demand the immediate resignation of President Chávez."

"I spoke, not as an admiral, but as a citizen," he recalled.

But Admiral Molina, 48, was not just any citizen. Rather, he was a high-ranking naval commander who became the third active-duty officer in an ll-day period to call publicly for Mr. Chávez to leave office. A week later a fourth officer, Gen. Román Gómez of the air force, joined the call, raising serious questions about the loyalties of the 120,000-member armed forces that the president says strongly backs him.

Mr. Chávez has played down the opposition, although his government swiftly forced Admiral Molina into retirement and punished other outspoken officers as well. But the vocal public appearances by the officers are seen by many experts here and abroad as a crack in his three-year-old presidency.

"This signifies a high degree of discontent in the armed forces," said Fernando Ochoa, a retired general who has been both minister of defense and foreign affairs. "To hear an admiral and a general come out like that must have been like a bucket of cold water in the face for the armed forces."

The rebellious officers helped energize a disjointed but growing opposition movement that is using regular street protests to try to weaken Mr. Chávez, whose autocratic style and left-wing policies have alienated a growing number of people.

Polls have shown that the popularity of Mr. Chávez, a former paratrooper who led a failed coup against the government in 1992 before winning election in December 1998, has dropped from 56 percent in July to just above 30 percent last month.

Some officials close to the military say the discontent in the armed forces has risen sharply as more Venezuelans have turned on its once-popular leader. Although he promised a "revolution" to improve the lives of the poor, Mr. Chávez has instead managed to rankle nearly every sector — from the church to the press to the middle class — with his combative style, populist speeches and dalliances with Fidel Castro of Cuba and the Marxist rebels of Colombia.

The recent military protests began on Feb. 7, when Col. Pedro Soto of the air force joined demonstrators in a pubic square in Caracas.

"The objective was to unmask the president," said Colonel Soto, 49. "He has said the military forces were with him. I wanted to tell people they were not."

The show of dissidence was unusual in a country where the military has, for the most part, been respectful of civilian rule. In 1958, the army helped civilian protesters oust the dictator Marcos Pérez Jímenez. After that, the military stayed largely out of politics until Mr. Chávez emerged.

The dissident officers defended their public criticism noting that a new Constitution that Mr. Chávez engineered guarantees free expression for all Venezuelans, including them.

But in addition to retiring Admiral Molina, the government also forced Colonel Soto to retire, and is proceeding with disciplinary measures that could end the career of General Gómez. An army captain who spoke out with Colonel Soto was jailed for 15 days.

Still, the military activism has had a galvanizing effect on the protests by other groups, said Felipe Mujica, president of Movement Toward Socialism, a political party that broke with Mr. Chávez and now helps organize demonstrations.

"This strengthens us," Mr. Mujica said of the military opposition. "It is important support, because this means Chávez would not be able to use force."

It remains unclear how deep the disenchantment with Mr. Chávez runs in the military, and what steps anti-Chávez officers are willing to take.

But Mario Iván Carratú, a retired vice admiral with close contacts in the military, said some active-duty officers had spoken of playing a more aggressive role. He said a few had even privately spoken of a need to stage a coup to oust Mr. Chávez.

"I have been in contact with many active officers, and they are of the belief that if society does not organize to take steps, then they are going to have to take control," said Mr. Carratú, former director of the Institute for National Defense Studies here.

The office of Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel did not respond to requests for an interview. But after the recent declarations by the military officers, Mr. Chávez said there was "no serious threat from the military ranks to the nation."

"There are people who are inciting rebellion, calling for a coup d'état, promoting confrontation," said Gen. Lucas Rincón, the armed forces' top commander, who is loyal to the president. "They are playing with fear and panic. It is very dangerous."

The army has chafed as Mr. Chavez has tried to recast the military's mission from one of security to that of an agency with social functions, like transporting food and running mobile clinics.

But most worrisome to some officers has been Mr. Chávez's alliances with Mr. Castro, his close friend, and with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. The officers see Mr. Chávez's tilt toward Cuba as imprudent given Venezuela's longstanding close ties with Washington.

Meanwhile, accusations abound here about ties between the military and the rebels, with critics saying the government has permitted guns for them to enter neighboring Colombia from here while allowing rebels to enter this country to escape the Colombian Army.

But experts point out that Mr. Chávez has taken steps to shore up his control of the military.

During his term the president is believed to have forced into retirement several dozen officers who were deemed disloyal, while many officers and former officers have been placed in key government positions. They include the vice president, Diosdado Cabello, a retired officer; the minister of the interior, Ramón Rodríguez, a former naval captain; and the finance minister, Gen. Francisco Uson Ramírez.

Current and former high-ranking officers insisted that the military as a whole does not believe that shedding blood to oust Mr. Chávez is a realistic option. They are well aware that the United States has said it will not support a coup.

"The armed forces do not want to gain a place in history with a coup," said one high-ranking military officer, who asked to remain unidentified. "If they want to pass into history, then what they want to do is support civil society in its protests."

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