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Nov 29, 2007 | 19:44 GMT

3 mins read

Venezuela: Fissures in the Military

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuela's armed forces are divided over President Hugo Chavez's plan to reform the constitution — which would allow Chavez to be re-elected indefinitely — former commander Joel Acosta Chirinos said Nov. 29. Chirinos said that, if the reform passes a Dec. 2 referendum and violent protests arise in response, the possibility of parts of the military turning against Chavez could not be ruled out. Armed forces might join protesters in the "construction of a new reality," he said. Acosta's statement reflects a recent spilt among previously pro-government forces. A commander in the failed 1992 coup attempt led by Chavez against then-President Carlos Andres Perez, Chirinos said Chavez's campaign for constitutional reform is in no way related to the Bolivarian agenda (which emphasizes Latin American unity and seeks to limit corruption and bureaucracy), but rather a shift toward Maoist- or Leninist-style socialism. Chirinos is not the only former military leader to split with Chavez. Recently, former Defense Minister Raul Isaias Baduel also made his opposition known, calling Chavez's reform plan a "coup d'etat." At the time, Baduel noted that others who took part in the 1992 coup have voiced dissent against Chavez's reform plan. Chirinos has clearly joined this camp. The as-yet-unanswered question is how widespread these sentiments are within the military. Chirinos' statements come a day after hundreds of students in Caracas clashed with police during opposition protests. With the Dec. 2 referendum only a few days away, a nationwide survey conducted by Caracas polling firm Datanalisis indicated 49 percent of likely voters oppose Chavez's reforms and 39 percent are in favor. A split within the army — which has been purged many times since Chavez was first elected in 1998 — could be the catalyst that students and other opposition forces need to counter Chavez's initiatives. But the willingness of the army to enforce Chavez's orders is only half of the equation, for they are not the only force in Venezuela these days with weapons. In part to reward his most loyal supporters, and in part to build a security force separate from the army's questionable allegiance, Chavez has armed his roughly 100,000 Chavistas over the past few years with Russian-imported automatic weapons. These Chavistas are recruited almost exclusively from among Venezuela's poor, and as such are utterly dependent for their well-being on ongoing government subsidies. So there are two questions that will be haunting opposition activists who plan to demonstrate on Caracas' Bolivar Avenue on Nov. 30. If soldiers are given the order to fire on protesters, will they do it? And if the answer is no, will the army defend the demonstrators from the Chavistas? The army has not done so before — but given the apparent divisions within the ranks, it is at least plausible that the referendum could bring out opposition members within the military who have until now remained silent.

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