June 19, 2013
Firepower to fight the vote?
It was Hugo Chávez himself who picked up on the rumour a week ago: “Some sectors of the extreme Venezuelan right, in desperation over the knowledge of their imminent defeat, are preparing to cry fraud and deny the victory of the people‘s vote.”
It was his electoral rival, Henrique Capriles, who last Saturday replied to reports published by the ultra-conservative Spanish newspaper ABC, which suggested armed pro-Chávez groups would prevent the transfer of power should the Venezuelan President be defeated.
“Our Armed Forces are pledged to the Constitution, including the defence of our democracy and respect for the will of our people,” said the Mesa de Unidad (Unity Panel) candidate, adding: “If the government ventures to put a spanner in the works, it will find our people in the streets demanding respect for their choice.”
So amid this vortex of rumours and threats of mobilization by the Venezuelan people, where do the Armed Forces stand and what might their reaction be? Especially considering that their 139,000-strong troops will be deployed on the streets on October 7 under the República Plan, which guarantees orderly voting at the polling-booths.
Regional Strategic Command chief, General Wilmer Barrientos said that the aim is to “provide security... to avoid any uncomfortable situations on election day.” But Rocío San Miguel, an expert in military matters (and for a long time a dark horse for the Defence Ministry in the opposition cadres) who heads the NGO Control Ciudadano (constitutional control), is less convinced about the political impartiality of the Armed Forces’ top brass, at least.
“There are members of the military high command, who have the power to give orders to shoot to preserve public order, who have demonstrated their political loyalty to Chávez,” said San Miguel when consulted by the Herald.
According to the experts, current Defence Minister Henry Rangel Silva, Army commander-in-chief Carlos Alcalá Cordones, his brother Guayana Regional Strategic Command chief Cliver Alcalá Cordones, National Guard commander for the 5th Region Antonio Benavídez and Air Force commander-in-chief Gregorio Pérez Escalona have all declared themselves fervent defenders of the Bolivarian Revolution, “in contempt of the law,” which bans political statements by those in uniform.
San Miguel however, adds another fear: “We have information at Control Ciudadano that Wilmer Barrientos, (who is) in charge of the República Plan for election day, while publicly declaring his respect for the Constitution is at the same time haranguing his staff behind closed doors, in various barracks around the country, about the achievements of the revolution and about how the Armed Forces should act in the “unlikely” case of Chávez losing.
Not another 2D
San Miguel does not rule out that in the event of a dead heat, or a minimal difference in the votes in favour of one candidate or the other, that the Armed Forces “would have to face the very high possibility of grave disorders, which is the scenario the military most fear.” The expert explained that the Armed Forces do not have any constitutional prerogatives to defend the Constitution — “any controversy generated by the electoral result would have to be settled by electoral litigation in the Supreme Court,” she explained.
“It is clear that Venezuela would not be able to stand the drawn-out procedures of such litigation — tempers are already too heated,” she said.
Could the scenario resemble December 2-3, 2007, when the military high command managed to persuade Chávez in the small hours that he had to “come clean” and release the voting results, over which he was apparently dragging his feet?
“I do not see anybody in the current military high command, and least of all Defence Minister Rangel Silva, demanding anything from the President, as reportedly happened in 2007,” replied San Miguel firmly.
But she suggested there was still a light at the end of the tunnel; the officer corps has been trained in democracy, it is in the DNA of around 70 percent of them, and they are thus inclined to respect the electoral result.
It still remains as a corollary to ask about the other armed order — the Bolivarian militia (whose recruitment and charter was rejected in the 2007 plebiscite, although it’s estimated that around 124,000 men and women have been recruited into militia ranks). Could Chávez mobilize them to defend an electoral result?
“Comparable in size to the Armed Forces, their mission is to defend the revolution to the utmost. But (they are) lacking any real firepower, they are not a threat to the uniformed regulars, although they are an enormous sector, whose obscure potential is unknown even to the Armed Forces themselves,” replied San Miguel.
And just to dispel the rumours about possible post-electoral clashes between the military and the militia, Rocío San Miguel flatly ruled out the direst scenario of all — the Armed Forces fighting it out among themselves.
“Since 1958 the Armed Forces have never been split in Venezuela — there is no basis for a civil war.,” she said. “Even if Chávez appealed to them from Miraflores government house, they would not divide.”
Nevertheless, she raised another imponderable: the vast number of unlicensed firearms in the hands of the civilian population.