Chavista military architect turns against successor: 'It's anarchy'

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Retired Major General Cliver Acala, of Venezuela, during interview with the BBC
Image caption,
Cliver Acala was 19 when Hugo Chavez started a secret group against Venezuela's leadership

In the popular retelling of modern Venezuelan history, Hugo Chavez was once a disillusioned soldier with grand plans. Quietly and methodically, he formulated a secret group called the MBR-200 to force the country's leadership from power.

The attempted coup in February 1992 ultimately failed but it projected the socialist leader onto the national consciousness, where he remains to this day.

At his side in that insurrection was a young captain, Cliver Alcala.

Few military men in Venezuela can legitimately claim to be an original architect of the Chavista project within the armed forces, but retired Maj Gen Alcala certainly can.

"My role in Chavismo dates back to over 20 years" he says in Caracas, no longer dressed in his military fatigues but the pinstriped suit and pink tie of a civilian.

"When Comandante Chavez started the MBR-200, I was a 19-year-old cadet. Today, I'm 54."

While in power, there was little that Chavez valued more than loyalty. And as Alcala quickly climbed the military ladder, he strove to provide it through open demonstrations of unwavering support.

He is often credited with being the first to publicly declare the armed forces "Bolivarian" and "revolutionary".

But today he is excoriating about the direction the government of President Nicolas Maduro is taking and the role of the military in the current political and economic crisis gripping the country. Mr Maduro succeeded Chavez, who died of cancer three years ago.

"This isn't Chavismo," Gen Alcala says of the socialist leadership. "It's anarchy."

"Over the past three years, we have entered a maelstrom of anarchy in which a group of compatriots that once supported the revolution - both civilians and military - thought they could install an anarchic ideology in the country."

"And so they have."

He immediately begins to list problems, with corruption at every level of government, and accuses the military of standing idly by as Rome - or in this case Caracas - burns.

'Venezuela is a barracks'

Rocio San Miguel, who runs a Venezuelan NGO on military affairs, believes Gen Alcala is trying to position himself "as an alternative figure in the case of an eventual collapse by Nicolas Maduro".

He denies having such presidential aspirations but does he now back the opposition's calls for a recall referendum which might see Mr Maduro go before the end of his term?

Image source, Cliver Alcala
Image caption,
Cliver Alcala is said to have been the first to declare Venezuela's Armed Forces "Bolivarian" and "revolutionary"

"The constitution is clear. The president says the recall vote is just 'an option'. It's not optional.

"Irrespective of the fact that a group of people might not want it, it's permitted under the constitution."

The military have always played a vital role in Venezuela since its independence in the 1800s. "Colombia is a university, Venezuela is a barracks," says the retired Major General, citing a line often attributed to Simon Bolivar.

But today, the extent to which militarisation has become the norm in Venezuela is self-evident in Caracas.

As tensions run high amid the long queues, food shortages, blackouts and rampant inflation, there are military checkpoints on the road up from the airport and the National Guard toting machine guns outside supermarkets and stores.

Last weekend, the government ordered what were supposed to be the biggest military exercises the country had ever seen - denounced as a "show" by critics like Cliver Alcala.

The BBC requested an interview with the ministry of defence for this article, but has so far received no response.

Coup or no coup?

One soldier, a lieutenant in the Venezuelan army, spoke on the condition of anonymity. In his late 20s, he is looking for a route out of the country as he believes the extent of the politicisation of the armed forces is harming the institution.

"The military environment exists under the slogan 'Viva Chavez!'" he explains.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The late Hugo Chavez was a controversial character: he was praised for his social programmes but criticised for his handling of the economy

"They try to impress those ideas on everyone in the ranks and there is no freedom of thought or expression within the Venezuelan army."

Every morning, he says, the first slogan the assembled troops hear is "Chavez Lives" to which they must respond: "the struggle continues."

Recently, key opposition leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski told the BBC that the armed forces in Venezuela would soon have to pick a side.

"Either they're with the constitution or they're with Maduro." A military coup was "in the air", he added.

But the young lieutenant disagrees, saying the authorities have worked out how to avoid a repeat of the short-lived putsch against President Chavez in April 2002.

"Historically, all the coups in Venezuela have been military ones", he explains in the airless living room of an apartment in downtown Caracas.

Today he says most soldiers are not expecting an uprising from the armed forces because "the top brass receive greater benefits in salary, in subsidised food, in housing, a car - whatever will keep them from bringing a battalion out onto the streets".

His former superior, Gen Alcala concurs.

"I don't think there'll be a coup. In fact, I'm convinced there won't be. The armed forces are now divorced from such actions and any adventures would be stopped before they began."

"We went through this process 24 years ago, in 1992," he says, referring to his participation in Hugo Chavez's doomed first bid for power.

Some still hold out hope for a negotiated political solution to Venezuela's woes. But the executive and the National Assembly remain at loggerheads, and people on the streets are getting desperate.

"Nicolas Maduro is refusing to recognise the will of the Venezuelan people," says Gen Alcala.

"He's basically saying that the Venezuelan people made a mistake. Well, the people don't make mistakes. Leaders make mistakes."