Latin America & Caribbean

The role of the military in the post-Chavez era

Soldiers of the military group 4F pose for a photo with a poster of Hugo Chavez outside the Military Academy, where the funeral service of Mr Chavez is being held, in Caracas on 10 March 2013

Hugo Chavez revolutionised the relationship between civilian and military powers in Venezuela. Some have called it the "politicisation" of the military, others say it led to the "militarisation" of politics.

The late Venezuelan president liked to boast about the "people-army" connection. Under that principle, he sent soldiers to the streets and made them do community work.

Critics say that by doing so, he risked the training and operation of the national armed forces. They also say this corrupted the army, which found itself flooded with money earmarked for the so-called social programmes.

Mr Chavez always saw himself as a soldier. He was not afraid to show military paraphernalia or to appoint former brothers-in-arms to high-ranking posts.

For many, the true base of Mr Chavez's political power was the armed forces, and not his United Socialist Party (PSUV).

But when Defence Minister Diego Molero said that Chavez supporters would "strike the [opposition] fascists" in their hearts during the forthcoming elections, this caused some concern in the ranks of the opposition, as the military is banned by law from promoting a candidate or a political party.

The army plays a key role in every electoral contest. They transport voting materials around the country, provide security and guard the ballots after the election has ended.

"Now that Venezuela needs unity and peace, Mr Molero's words are unacceptable, false and unconstitutional," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, co-ordinator of the Table of Unity, an umbrella organisation for opposition parties.

'Time bomb'

Rocio San Miguel, director of Control Ciudadano (Citizen's Control), an NGO dedicated to military issues, says Mr Molero's speech could become another ingredient of what she calls a "time bomb" - where differences within the military could grow to a point where violence could erupt.

Ms San Miguel believes the bomb is already ticking. The ingredients are: divisions inside the army; a lack of identification between top- and middle-ranking officials; and a confrontation between a "pro-Cuban" camp and a "nationalist camp", who resent the participation of Cubans in Venezuela's affairs.

More than half the regional governors and a quarter of the ministers are retired officers, some of them former Chavez comrades in the coup attempt of 1992.

That is another point of friction, according to Ms San Miguel. Some active officers just do not feel comfortable with directly exercising power.

Moreover, there are differences between those who support interim President Nicolas Maduro and those who are behind the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, she argues.

'People's army'

But those who support the so-called Bolivarian Revolution of Mr Chavez believe the army simply has a different dynamic.

"We have a revolution here. That old idea of a [neutral] army is pure cynicism," said Fernando Soto Rojas, former president of the national army, who is still close to the military.

"The armed forces are either with the people or with capitalism. And here we are building a popular power, organised and armed for the defence of the revolution," he says.

Mr Soto Rojas does not understand why the opposition fears elections might be affected if they take place under the watchful eye of the army, even if it is clearly aligned with one side in the contest.

"We have had 16 totally clean elections. Those who see themselves as socialists cannot be cheating on anyone. If you want to defeat us, you need the popular vote," he says.

Rocio San Miguel says the problem goes beyond elections: it is the stability of the Venezuelan political system in the post-Chavez era that is at stake.

"Chavez was the only one who could keep the army together, with its profound divisions", she argues.

Without Mr Chavez to exercise that control, it is not clear how any potential successor will be able to continue with his legacy and his military doctrine.