“Real power”Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” as Chávez dubbed his remaking of the country, itself has roots in military rebellion. Six years before he was elected president in 1998, Chávez led a failed coup against Carlos Andrés Pérez, a deeply unpopular president who Congress eventually forced from office.Once in power, Chávez immediately took steps to enlist the military in his vision for a paternalistic, state-led economy that would share abundant oil wealth with long-neglected segments of Venezuela’s population.With a new constitution in December 1999, Chávez stripped Congress of its oversight of promotion of senior officers. That gave the president ultimate authority to assign flag ranks and empower allied officers.Because many state and local governments at the time were still controlled by rivals, Chávez also saw the military as a tool that could show his administration hard at work. A new program, “Plan Bolivar 2000,” ordered troops to fill potholes, clean highways, refurbish schools and carry out other public works.
DYSFUNCTION BY DESIGN: Step by step, Venezuela’s government created a top-heavy, confusing chain of command.
The $114 million effort put sizeable sums at the discretion of commanders, giving officers a taste for a new kind of influence. “What Plan Bolivar 2000 taught officers was that real power doesn’t lie in commanding troops, but rather in controlling money,” said one retired general. The general, who served under Chávez and Maduro, spoke on condition of anonymity.Soon, some of the funds began to disappear.Miguel Morffe, a retired major, once worked as a captain in the remote northwestern region of La Guajira. He recalls receiving a request from superiors to provide materials for an unspecified schoolhouse. When Morffe told a lieutenant colonel that he didn’t understand where the supplies would be going, the superior told him: “I need those materials for something else.”“The school didn’t exist,” Morffe concluded.
Military officials didn’t reply to questions about the alleged incident.By 2001, a raft of corruption allegations plagued the Plan Bolivar program.Chávez fired General Victor Cruz, the Army’s commander in charge of the program. Cruz denied wrongdoing and wasn’t charged with any crime at the time. Venezuelan authorities arrested him last year when press reports linked him to funds in an offshore account. A Caracas court in May ordered him to stand trial on charges of illicit enrichment.Reuters couldn’t reach Cruz for comment or identify his legal counsel.In 2002, Chávez said he would wind down Plan Bolivar 2000. Regional elections, he told Chilean sociologist and political activist Marta Harnecker in an interview, had put more allies in mayoral and state offices, where they could now work in unison with the national government. The military, he said, would return to its normal business.That April, however, a small group of top officers emboldened Chávez to further remake the armed forces. Encouraged by conservative leaders and wealthy elites unhappy with his leftist agenda, the officers staged a coup and briefly arrested Chávez.
But the coup unraveled. Within two days, Chávez was back in power.He purged the top ranks. More importantly, he reined in several powerful offices, including the Defense Ministry. Henceforth, the ministry would manage military budgets and weapons procurement, but no longer control troops themselves. Chávez created the Strategic Operations Command, the agency that manages deployments.The move, former officers say, jumbled the chain of command.He also rethought overall strategy.Increasingly concerned that Venezuela’s oil wealth and leftist policies would make it a target for invasion, particularly by the United States, Chávez pushed for the military to integrate further with the government and society itself. “We’re transforming the armed forces for a war of resistance, for the anti-imperialist popular war, for the integral defense of the nation,” he said at a 2004 National Guard ceremony.Military leaders soon had to pledge their allegiance to Chávez and his Bolivarian project, not just the nation itself. Despite resistance from some commanders, the ruling party slogan, “Fatherland, Socialism or Death,” began echoing through barracks and across parade grounds.As of 2005, another factor helped Chávez tighten his hold on power. Oil prices, years before fracking would boost global supply, soared along with the notion the planet’s reserves were dwindling. For most of the rest of his time in power, the windfall would enable Chávez to accelerate spending and ensure popular support.Oil money also helped him strengthen relationships with like-minded countries, especially those seeking to counterbalance the United States. Venezuela purchased billions of dollars in arms and equipment from Russia and China. It secured medical and educational support through doctors, teachers and other advisors arriving from Cuba, the closest ally of all.Cubans came with military know-how, too.A “cooperation agreement” forged between Chávez and Fidel Castro years earlier had by now blossomed into an alliance on security matters, according to two former officers. Around 2008, Venezuelan officers say they began noticing Cuban officials working within various parts of the armed forces.General Antonio Rivero, who the previous five years had managed Venezuela’s civil protection authority, says he returned to military activities that year to find Cuban advisors leading training of soldiers and suggesting operational and administrative changes. The Cubans, he told Reuters, advised Chávez to rework the ranks, once built around strategic centers, into more of a territorial system, spreading the military’s presence further around the country.Rivero was stunned at one training session on military engineering. A Cuban colonel leading the session told attendees the meeting and its contents should be considered a state secret.“What’s happening here?” Rivero said he asked himself. “How is a foreign military force going to possess a state secret?” Rivero left Venezuela for the United States in 2014.Cuban officials didn’t respond to requests from Reuters for comment.
“You have a general in chief and an admiral in chief. Which one are you supposed to obey? ”
The island’s influence soon would become apparent in day-to-day operations.In Cuba, the military is involved in everything from public works to telecommunications to tourism. In Venezuela, too, ruling party officials increasingly began ordering officers to take part in activities that had little to do with military preparedness. Soldiers increasingly became cheap labor for governors and mayors.In 2010, a general then serving in the Andes, a western region on the Colombian border, was overseeing a complex mobilization of 5,000 troops for a month of combat training. The general spoke on condition that he not be named.Another general, from a nearby command, called and asked him to halt the exercises. The state governor, the other officer told the general, wanted to reroute the troops – to install energy-efficient light bulbs in homes.When the general refused, Army Commander Euclides Campos issued a formal order to scrap the training. “This would sound shocking to any military professional, but it’s exactly how the Venezuelan armed forces work,” the former general said.Reuters was unable to reach Campos for comment.“Traitors never!”Chávez, stricken by cancer, died in 2013. Maduro, his vice president and hand-picked replacement as the Socialist party candidate for president, won the election to succeed him.The new president continued naming new flag officers and appointed even more military officials to helm agencies. By 2017, active and former military figures had held as many as half of Maduro’s 32 cabinet posts, according to Citizen Control, a Venezuelan non-profit that studies the armed forces.
In 2014, just as a collapse in oil prices torpedoed Venezuela’s economy, Maduro further fragmented the military structure.Following the advice of the Cubans, former military officers say, Maduro created new command centers nationwide. He appointed senior officers to run new commands in each of the 23 states and Caracas, the capital, as well as eight regional commands above those. His public speeches are now increasingly peppered with terms like ZODI and REDI, acronyms for the new commands.Near military facilities, new brass abounded.”Before, seeing a general was like seeing a bishop or an archbishop, he was an important figure,” recalls Morffe, the retired major. “Not long ago, I saw one in an airport. He walked past a group of soldiers and they didn’t even salute.”Flag officers now oversee some areas that were once slivers of larger commands, in areas so remote that they have few human inhabitants. The largest landmass in the Western Maritime and Insular Command, overseen by an admiral, is a rocky archipelago with little vegetation and no permanent residents. The officer, Vice Admiral Rodolfo Sánchez, didn’t respond to a Reuters phone call to his office.The lopsided, partisan structure has led to mission creep, former officers say.In the Andes command, which oversees three states, six generals once oversaw roughly 13,000 troops, according to officers familiar with the region. Today, at least 20 generals are now managing ranks that have dwindled to as few as 3,000 soldiers, according to officers familiar with the region.
Last August, three of the generals, including the regional commander, met with municipal officials in the state of Táchira, a hotbed of protests against Maduro in recent years. Days earlier, the government had said explosives used in a drone attack on a military parade in Caracas had been…