David Abel | The Sun-Sentinel | 9/1/1999
CARACAS, Venezuela --When members of Congress last week resisted an order by a constitutional assembly to strip the legislature of its powers, the president sent hundreds of soldiers in red berets to block legislators from entering the parliament building.
Two days earlier, using tanks and helicopters, dozens of crack special-operations troops launched a blitzkrieg assault before dawn to take back a Caracas prison from rioting inmates.
Now, units from the National Guard have begun patrolling the capital's streets to clamp down on crime.
The increasing presence of the armed forces is part of a plan by President Hugo Chavez to integrate the military into civilian society and take advantage of what he calls "a political resource of the state."
But Chavez's critics argue that by mixing the nation's military with its politics, the president is jeopardizing one of Latin America's oldest democracies and is pushing the country toward a military dictatorship.
The military wields an annual budget in excess of $ 1 billion and has amassed resources over the years for two principal missions: to ensure the security of the nation's oil fields and guard against a spill-over of Colombia's long guerrilla war. But Chavez and his supporters say the military can do more.
The president has ordered about 70,000 soldiers to do everything from repair roads to raise chickens for subsidized sales to the poor.
Chavez himself has deep roots in the military. As an army lieutenant colonel and paratrooper, Chavez led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, for which he served two years in prison.
Despite his background, voters overwhelmingly elected him in December, then returned to the polls in July to elect a Chavez-inspired assembly whose ostensible task is to rewrite the constitution.
Packed with the president's supporters, including his wife, brother and five former ministers, Chavez has 121 of the assembly's 131 votes. As many have feared, the assembly has gone beyond its mandate. Two weeks ago, it assumed many of the powers of the Supreme Court.Last week, assembly members stripped the opposition-controlled Congress of almost all its powers, and this week snatched the one power that remained -- control of the budget.
Assembly members have said they would like to turn their attention to the authority of state governors and city mayors.
Jorge OlavarrBia is one of the 10 members of the opposition that won a seat in the constitutional assembly. "This new constitution is a constitution made for the military," he said. "It has one goal: The concentration of power in the hands of one person," OlavarrBia said.Among its provisions, Chavez's draft constitution would return the right to vote to members of the military.
That right was stripped in the 1961 constitution, the one Chavez claims is the foundation for government corruption, to prevent the return of Venezuela's military dictatorships.
Even before the constitutional changes, Chavez blurred the line between the government and the military.
In July, the 45-year-old president promoted 34 military officers who took part in his bloody 1992 uprising, defying a warning by the Senate that the promotions were unconstitutional. The Senate took its case to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.Chavez, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, also named about 50 military officers to government jobs, despite a law banning military personnel from holding public office.
Among them was Gen. Lucas Rincon, whom Chavez named chief of staff. Within months, Rincon left that job after Chavez fired the commander of the army and named Rincon as the replacement. Some say the reshuffling increased the president's control over the military.
Not all the military supported Chavez's candidacy--but there was a price to pay. The five generals who criticized Chavez during the presidential campaign were forced into retirement this year.The president is also contemplating action against the police in Caracas, a stronghold of the opposition.
"We can intervene in any police force in any municipality, because we are not going to permit any tumult or uproar," he said Sunday during his weekly radio program. "Order has arrived in Venezuela," he said.
Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a leader of the opposition Democatic Action Party, finds Chavez's threat outrageous.
"The armed forces have specific tasks and none of them have anything to do with maintaining public order," Ledezma said. "To use solders for what the president wants is wrong. The soldier is trained to kill. Not to maintain public order. Any other use is illegal.
"Chavez's supporters, however, say the president is not violating the law as much as he's trying to change the country. Because Chavez thinks the military is beyond reproach, he views its increased role in government and society as a means to cleanse the country of years of corruption. Despite the country's vast oil reserves, which are greater than any nation outside the Middle East, about 80 percent of the people live in poverty."
The president has many new ideas, and we are lucky to have such brilliant people in the military," said Alexis Aponte, the vice minister of the Interior Relations Ministry. "We should use them. We should use the National Guard as a way to assist the police in reinforcing citizens' security. The collaboration will dissuade criminal behavior."
The 120,000-member armed forces, Chavez supporters say, have long been used to carry out civilian tasks. Soldiers have done everything from regulate customs and immigration to provide security and deliver ballot boxes to the National Election Council during elections.
"Undoubtedly there exists a process that a lot of people fear," says retired Gen. Italo del Valle Alliegro, a former minister of defense under President Jaime Lusinchi in the late 1980s. "But I think there is an exaggeration of the problems. Chavez isn't the cause of the problem; he is the consequence. And people overwhelmingly voted for him, knowing what he would do."
Miguel Rodriguez came out of retirement to hawk one of Chavez's favorite books, The Oracle of the Guerrilla, outside the gates of parliament. To Rodriguez, Chavez is Venezuela's long-awaited savior.
Wearing the president's signature red beret as he blasted jibes at Congress through a bullhorn, the 58-year-old said he doesn't worry about the president flouting the authority of Congress or the Supreme Court. He echoes Chavez, saying those institutions "have for too long been corrupt and are now moribund."
Like Chavez, Venezuela's first president to have served in the military in 40 years, Rodriguez says it's time for decisive action.
"The military is there to guarantee the rights of the people," he says. "Yes, we have a history of leaders using the military for their own purposes. But Chavez won't do that. He's taking power for the people."
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