Jan 23, 2014 | 11:15 GMT

6 mins read

Venezuela's President Turns to Chavez's Old Allies for Support

Venezuela's President Turns to Chavez's Old Allies for Support
(LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid shaky economic conditions and persistent political uncertainty, the new government in Caracas is returning to old patterns in hopes of forcing unity and maintaining stability. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's recent policy announcements adhere to the ideology of his predecessor, and recent ministerial-level appointments have elevated military figures whose close association with deceased President Hugo Chavez lends them gravitas. The South American nation seems less and less likely to voluntarily shift away from the policies that have brought it to this point, but every day brings increased urgency to find additional sources of national revenue.

On Jan. 20, Maduro officially promoted the heads of his personal guard to lead the country's national and military intelligence organizations. In doing so, he reaffirmed Miguel Rodriguez Torres as head of the Interior and Justice Ministry but not as head of the intelligence services. Torres had been serving both positions since he took on the role of interior minister in April. His replacement at the helm of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (better known as Sebin) is Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martinez, a recently promoted brigadier general and former head of the presidential guard.

In the same day, the former second-in-command of the presidential guard, Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala, took command of the Military Directorate of Counterintelligence, replacing retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal. The U.S. Treasury Department designated Carvajal, a prominent member of Chavez's intelligence team, as a drug kingpin in 2008 for his alleged involvement with drug trafficking activities associated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

What most of these men have in common is that they were contemporaries of Chavez during the failed coup attempt in 1992. It was in that unstable time following the massive riots of 1989 that Chavez rose to prominence in the minds of Venezuelans. Having surrendered on behalf of the military forces attempting to incite an overthrow of the government, Chavez went on to serve a jail term from which he emerged as a political voice for change, eventually rising to power through a popular vote. Though the coup failed, it marked a turning point in history. Chavez called his co-conspirators the "Centaurs of 4F" in honor of the Feb. 4 uprising and the horseback rebellions of centuries past, a nickname used today throughout Venezuelan media.

Under Maduro's leadership, this cohort of both retired and active duty military men, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, seems to have emerged as increasingly influential. It is no secret that Maduro's influence and authority are no match for that of his predecessor, and in assuming the presidency, Maduro has made it an open policy to cling as tightly as possible to Chavez's image in an effort to secure legitimacy. However, far more problematic than public opinion is the possibility that Maduro may not have the full loyalty of the military. Therefore, it is not surprising that over the past eight months of his presidency, Maduro has made a political show of consulting with military leaders and integrating them into his government. By prioritizing Chavez's contemporaries, Maduro has been able to accomplish both goals.

Intelligence in Venezuela

Although Maduro has made a range of ministerial changes in recent months, the changing of the guard at the country's top intelligence agencies is particularly important. Unlike many national-level intelligence agencies, the Sebin is only peripherally focused on foreign perils — those are the domain of military intelligence. Instead, Sebin is a management tool designed to thwart the emergence of domestic threats, and as such, it is the most important intelligence body in the country.

Domestic challenges include physical threats but also political ones. Venezuela's domestic political system is founded upon a process of building support from the bottom up. As a result, community-level intelligence is critical; it enables the government to identify and cultivate emerging local leaders and directly target economic assistance as a way to address local needs, with the goal of ensuring that the population remains committed to the national project.

Under Chavez, the intelligence directorate underwent two major reorganizations. Called the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (better known as DISIP) when he came into office, Chavez decreed a reorganization in mid-2009 following a series of scandals. Torres was brought in to lead the organization through the transition to what is the current-day Sebin. Sebin nominally answers to the Interior Ministry, meaning that in his position as the head of the ministry, Torres will still have oversight of Sebin's activities while reporting to the vice presidents that make up Maduro's inner circle.

A Security Crisis

As Maduro concentrates on delicate power maneuvers in an effort to consolidate his management strategy within the framework created by Chavez, the mood on the ground in Venezuela is far from optimistic. The recent murder of prominent actress and former Miss Venezuela beauty queen Monica Spear has put an exclamation point on the country's deteriorating security situation. Already a high-profile issue, Spear's death has imposed a new urgency on the Maduro government to address rampant violence, a job that falls primarily on the shoulders of Torres and Sebin.

The security crisis has also proved an opportunity for Maduro to reach out to the opposition, and several prominent opposition leaders have taken the chance to join in talks seeking to address the security issue. Maduro's willingness to engage the opposition seems to be a sign of pragmatism. Maduro cannot afford to have the opposition completely united against him and stands a better chance of accomplishing a range of goals if he can incorporate some opposition interests. There are secondary benefits as well. Unity is not at all the natural state of the Venezuelan opposition, which is made up of former opponents from the political duopoly that preceded Chavez's rise. Maduro's outreach on security seems likely to win some grudging cooperation from opposition members while at the same time widening existing divisions within the cohort.

Venezuela's ongoing turmoil would primarily be a matter of domestic affairs if the country were not so important for Western Hemispheric oil production. Chavez's policies of nationalization and wealth redistribution put an enormous burden on the energy sector, forcing some companies out and engendering deep inefficiencies in the national energy company. The routine government takeovers of the factors of production throughout the country have essentially decimated any non-oil export potential, and despite still massive energy production, Venezuela is undergoing a serious financial crunch with no end in sight. With the national oil company faltering and central bank reserves dwindling, hard choices will have to be made within the next year, including the politically explosive decision of whether to raise fuel prices.

It is for this reason that Maduro must build a strong government. It will take a great deal of political capital for Maduro to even begin to think about renewing the energy sector in Venezuela. The task will require inviting in foreign investment — something that would almost necessarily disrupt existing patronage networks. Any move to reorganize economic priorities will therefore require a great deal of personal power that Maduro does not seem to have yet. And while the ongoing incremental changes to the government structure seem to indicate successful efforts to forestall major challenges to his power consolidation, Maduro does not have a lot of time to repair the economy.

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