The Role of the Venezuelan Armed Forces in Politics and State Building Throughout History
By Brian Fonseca* and Marcos Ommati August 01, 2019
The origin of the military in Venezuela dates back to the colonial militia organized by Spain in the 18th century in what was then the Capitanía General de Venezuela.
The wars of independence (1810-1823) produced a proud military tradition. Beginning with the presidency of José Antonio Páez (1830-1835), armed men directly or indirectly held political power in Venezuela through most of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Venezuela has a longstanding tradition of military participation in politics. Until Julián Castro’s military regime in 1858, most post-independence leaders in the 19th century were ex-military officers who represented the Liberal and Conservative political parties. Alternation between active and retired military officers holding political power ended definitively with the Revolución Liberal Restauradora (Liberal Restoration Revolution), the 1899 coup d’état and civil war perpetrated by Cipriano Castro and other armed men from Venezuela’s Táchira State.
A professional military
Between 1899 and 1945, a succession of military officers from Táchira ruled the country. During this period, the military transformed itself, becoming a professional institution with the founding of a modern military academy in 1910 under the tutelage of German-influenced Chilean military instructors. It became one of the most important state institutions, with military officers respected and admired by society.
With political power and in the absence of interstate conflict, the armed forces saw themselves as the key institution in fostering internal development and modernization. Upon Venezuela’s return to democracy in 1958, the military returned to the barracks. After the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1952-1958), political leaders signed a formal agreement known as the Pact of Punto Fijo, which called for mutual acceptance of the results of the 1958 presidential elections and the preservation of the rising democratic regime.
The military’s role in the state changed dramatically during this period, shifting from modernization and governance to combatting left-wing insurgencies during the 1960s, namely the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, (Revolutionary Left Movement, MIR) and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN).
Although it remained largely subordinate to civilian control in the subsequent decades, the military increased its participation in development once again in the mid-1970s under a new national security doctrine that called for the integration of development and security. Conditions changed again at the end of the 1980s. Buffeted by low prices for its principal export — oil and its derivatives — and rising interest rates on its international debt, the Venezuelan government struggled financially.
The Caracazo, a wave of protests, riots, and looting on February 27, 1989, followed the implementation of President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s neoliberal economic reforms, and the government called on the military to contain the riots. The resulting loss of civilian lives divided junior and senior officers. The radical left-wing conspiracy Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (Revolutionary Bolivarian 200 Movement, MBR-200) within the Army, led by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, accelerated its planning for a coup d’état, which it attempted in February 1992.
This coup attempt was unsuccessful, but it marked the beginning of the end of the democracy consolidated under the aegis of the Pact of Punto Fijo. A deep institutional crisis followed during the 1990s with the impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1993 and a major financial and economic crisis during the Rafael Caldera administration (1994-1999).
The most important factor influencing the changing role of the Venezuelan military during this period was the emergence of Hugo Chávez as a political figure. He was a military officer, a charismatic outsider, and a radical populist leader. His brief televised appearance at the end of the February 1992 coup, where he stated that he was laying down arms “por ahora” (for now), galvanized political support among traditionally excluded and marginalized sectors of the population, particularly poor and working class Venezuelans.
A new role for the military
Chávez won the presidency via electoral means in December 1998, and the formal and informal role of the armed forces changed again, with the promulgation of a new political constitution in 1999. Article 328 of the 1999 Constitution broadened the military’s mission. It states: “The National Armed Forces constitutes an essentially professional institution, without political militancy, organized by the State to guarantee the independence and sovereignty of the Nation and ensure the integrity of the geographic space through military defense, cooperation in the maintenance of internal order, and the active participation in national development, in accordance with this Constitution and the law.”
The right to vote
Chávez appointed active-duty and retired military officers to political and bureaucratic positions throughout the civilian ministries and agencies of the state. Officers occupied up to a third of cabinet portfolios, with the military becoming one of the principal executors of government programs and policy, clearly moving from a restricted domestic role to an active one. Meanwhile, Article 330 gave military personnel the right to vote — something that had been prohibited throughout the democratic period of the Fourth Republic in an effort to minimize partisanship in the armed forces.
The military’s role in politics, economics, and society became more entrenched after the failed coup against Chávez in April 2002. Its function was formalized in a number of ways. On November 28, 2002, the National Assembly passed the Ley Orgánica de Seguridad de la Nación (Organic Law of National Security), introducing the idea of “seguridad y defensa integral” (security and integral defense). This law reaffirmed the military’s salient role in society and deepened the institution’s commitment to development and security. In 2005, the Assembly passed the Ley Orgánica de la Fuerza Armada Nacional (Organic Law of the National Armed Forces), reiterating the participation of the military in development tasks and the maintenance of internal order.
The government has also attempted to indoctrinate and dictate the political beliefs of the officer corps, and to a lesser extent, non-officers. A 2007 reform adopted the use of the motto “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte! ¡Venceremos!” (Fatherland, socialism, or death. We will prevail!) as part of military salutes. This is a clear example of privileging ideology over nonpartisanship.
In addition, the 2008 Ley Orgánica de la Fuerza Armada Bolivariana, (Organic Law of the Bolivarian Armed Forces, LOFANB) changed the formal title of the military from the National Armed Forces (FAN) to the “Bolivarian” National Armed Forces (FANB), directly implying the defense of a specific political project — that of Bolivarianism — rather than the nation as a whole. This law and subsequent reforms reinforced Chávez’s tendency to create a military structure that would respond directly to him and his political-ideological project rather than remain apolitical, as called for in the constitution.
Venezuelan military identity
The Venezuelan FANB draws on three legacies to shape its identity. The first is that of Venezuela’s liberator and founding father, Simón Bolívar. His battlefield exploits and political accomplishments during Venezuela’s war of independence from Spain are the cornerstone of Venezuelan military identity. The second draws on Venezuela’s democratic traditions, particularly from the 1958-1998 period. The third more contemporary source of Venezuelan military identity lies in the legacy of Chávez and his efforts to build socialismo del siglo XXI (21st century socialism) in Venezuela.
Although these three identities are not always compatible, Chávez and his successors have gone to extraordinary lengths to connect a modern ideologically centered military identity with an organic and historically based traditional identity. Every member of the Venezuelan military must confront the contradictions posed by these identities, as they are present to a different degree in every soldier.
Simón Bolívar, whose legacy includes the liberation of five nations in South America between 1810 and 1825, is exalted within traditional Venezuelan military values. The armed forces see themselves as the institution that bears the legacy of this incomparable — in their view —achievement, unmatched by the founding fathers of any other South American state (although perhaps the Argentines might dispute that given the accomplishments of their own General José de San Martín). Therefore, a core identity for the Venezuelan Armed Forces is as liberators, captured in the army’s motto, “Forjador de Libertades” (forger of liberties).
Also drawn from the wars of independence is the notion of resistance against great odds and at all costs, in this case against the Spanish Empire. It is worth noting that Simón Bolivar went to extremes during Venezuela’s independence war, declaring “guerra a muerte” (war to the death) against the Spanish, recognizing no limits to the violence that could be employed in the defense of the nation.
Another influence on Venezuelan military identity drawn from this period is of the armed forces as the founders of the nation and defenders of territorial and popular sovereignty. It is important to remember that Venezuela had an army before it had a state, with the military taking a proprietary interest in political, economic, and social outcomes in Venezuela. It sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of Venezuela’s independence.
A new way of thinking
Under Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, there have been attempts to link traditional sources of military identity to the ideological precepts of the governing party. Specifically, Chávez posited the need for a new way of thinking for the Venezuelan military. The role of the armed forces as the forgers of liberties was reinterpreted to emphasize the defense of social liberties, the poor, and the marginalized. The experience of Venezuela’s wars of independence was reinterpreted to emphasize the role of indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan resistance to Spanish imperialism.
Chávez made comparisons between modern experiences of prolonged popular war (China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua) and Venezuela’s long war of independence (1810-1823). Chávez also drew an analogy between Spanish imperialism and U.S. imperialism, emphasizing prolonged popular war integrating civilian and military combatants as the only way to defeat a technologically and economically superior adversary. From his view, this necessitated a “civil-military” union that transformed the entire population into a source of resistance to the enemy. These views were incorporated into Venezuelan military thinking through the four service academies, eventually integrated under the aegis of the Universidad Militar Bolivariana de Venezuela (Venezuelan Bolivarian Military University) in 2010.
Although the FANB share many values with armed forces around the world, a more recent layer of values emphasizes the socialist dimension of Chávez’s thinking and its implications for the armed forces. However, the Venezuelan military is also a pragmatic institution that prizes unity above all else, and it will attempt to avoid roles or engage in operations that would put its internal cohesion at risk. Even in times of extreme crisis, such as the 1958 and 2002 coup attempts, or the 1989 urban uprising known as the Caracazo, the officer corps rapidly resolved differences and rallied around their corporate military identity. The officer corps prefers to support constitutional continuity above all, and it will go to some lengths to avoid being placed in situations that would lead it to order the use of force against other elements of the Venezuelan military or against the people.
The Venezuelan military education system is a foundation for transmitting norms and values to officers. During the Chávez period, the military educational system emphasized the following values for members of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces: Love of country; Honor; Discipline; Obedience and subordination; Leadership by example; Loyalty; Justice; Moderation; and Heroism.
Chávez’s Plan for Bolivarian Socialist Management for 2013-2019 added an emphasis on Bolivarian ideals, integrated defense of the nation executed on all battlefronts, and civil-military union — every citizen a soldier and every soldier a citizen. This has been translated concretely into the expansion of military reserves, the creation of a national Bolivarian militia (at times termed the territorial guard), and the creation of committees on integrated security and defense within the Communal Councils that constitute the basic neighborhood based building blocks of local governance.
The FANB plays an extensive role in Venezuelan society, politics, and economics. Using Harold Trinkunas’ theoretical framework for understanding civilian control of the military through an examination of the military’s jurisdictional boundaries — external defense, internal security, public policy, and leadership selection — it is clear that the FANB is publicly active in the first three jurisdictions, and possibly even aspects of leadership selection.
This is the product of a politically engaged officer class that came of age under the Plan Andrés Bello, the 1999 Political Constitution that formalized the FANB’s large role in the state and encouraged a civil-military union, and subsequent legal changes to fortify the military’s role in society. Since 1999, the armed forces have been a protagonist in policy implementation and politics and played an increasingly large role in society.
Although constitutionally bound to be apolitical, the military is nonetheless highly politicized and often functions as a de facto branch of Chavismo. The politicization process began shortly after Chávez assumed power in 1999. However, it increased substantially after the 2002 coup d’état that temporarily removed Chávez from power and led him to identify and penalize coup supporters. The fallout from the coup led the Chávez administration to tighten its circle of trusted supporters; it also meant that many influential government positions or lucrative contract opportunities were given to loyalists within the military. In 2016, around 200 hardcore Chavista military officers were in control of the armed forces’ most sensitive positions.
The officer selection and promotion process produces senior officers that tend to view the PSUV favorably and the MUD coalition unfavorably. Accordingly, the country’s top political leadership is intolerant of opposition voices within the officer ranks.
Since 2002, the government has punished any perceived support for the political opposition from the senior officer ranks, removing them from office. Significant purges have continued ever since that time, even against officers who had been prominent PSUV allies, suggesting that Chávez and now Maduro remain preoccupied about the loyalty of the high command.
Rooting out critics from the military
In one striking example in 2007, Chávez denounced retired General Raúl Isaías Baduel, a one-time supporter who had helped the president regain power in 2002. However, Baduel publicly opposed Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms, leading the president to accuse Baduel of abuse of power, misappropriation of funds, and violation of the military code while he was an officer. Baduel was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison. By rooting out critics from the military, and through frequent turnovers within the officer corps, Chávez and Maduro have minimized the danger that military leadership might pose to the presidency, while politicizing the military high command and empowering officers who can also be counted on to protect the president from rivals.
Venezuelan military culture should be understood as consisting of multiple layers. The deepest layer draws on the myths of the war of independence and the Army’s role in liberating Venezuela and four other countries. The historical role of the armed forces and of military presidents in Venezuela’s first 150 years of independence reinforces the military’s self-perception as essential to the survival of Venezuela as a nation-state and as a defender of the Venezuelan people. Layered on top of this is the role of the Venezuelan military as a professional institution, as an apolitical guarantor of democracy, and as a contributor to national development during the democratic period that began in 1958.
In addition, the Chavista regime has added an ideological dimension that commits the armed forces to a partisan defense of 21st century socialism and the legacy of Chávez. The Chavista regime has actively tried to influence Venezuelan military culture to accept an ideological commitment to Bolivarianism through use of carrots and sticks.
The incentives to comply include an outsized role in state policy, great increases in material resources, and access to corruption and participation in the illicit economy, particularly drug trafficking. This has produced a generation of military officers that have only known the rule of Chavismo. Many are complicit with the regime, both in its (now dwindling) achievements and in its crimes. For the rest, the threat of being denounced to the intelligence services and dismissed enforces at least lip service to Bolivarian ideals. The distribution of particular elements of Venezuelan military culture is uneven across services, generations, and social origins.
Those closest to Chávez, those who participated in the 1992 coups, and those who have served in senior leadership position in the Chavista regime have gained greatly and have the most to lose from a change in the status quo. The Army and the National Guard have gained the most under Chavismo, and they have the most to lose if an opposition government takes power.
The most junior generation of officers has been the most highly ideologized by the military education system and more likely to contain at least some true believers. Senior officers are selected for their ideological support for the Revolution rather than on merit. Yet there are also many officers who understand that the system is in crisis, that current policies are untenable, and for whom the traditional ideals associated with Venezuela’s military history and its democracy are more salient.
Venezuelan society’s views of the military are complex.
There has long been a positive view of the military in Venezuelan society. However, societal views are changing as the military has become increasingly associated with the survival of the Chavista regime and the execution of its policies. Those most closely associated with the opposition and those who benefit least from the present regime are most likely to view the armed forces skeptically.
In addition, the growing evidence of military complicity with corruption and with the illicit economy further erodes social trust in the armed forces. Yet even for broader society, the bedrock role of the armed forces in Venezuela’s independence and in its democracy is likely to be an enduring legacy, available to future generations if they choose to restructure the civil-military compact.
*Brian Fonseca is the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University’s (FIU) Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs