Comandante Hugo Chávez: What role will military play in next administration?

Chávez, who rose through the ranks of the military, was able to control the armed forces. Keeping the institution unified will be a challenge for Venezuela's next president.

Miraflores Press Office/AP
Mourners walk beside the coffin containing the body of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez on display during his wake at a military academy where his body will lie in state until his funeral, in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday.

When the coffin's procession through the streets of Caracas ended, Hugo Chávez returned to a familiar place: the military academy where his career began. 

Draped with the red, yellow, and blue of the Venezuelan flag, colors that Mr. Chávez often donned in life, the academy provided more than a subtle reminder of the role the armed forces have played in Venezuelan politics.

Chávez, who rose through the ranks of the military, was able to control the armed forces largely by stacking it with party loyalists. But his successor, whether it is front-runner Vice President Nicolás Maduro or opposition leader Henrique Capriles – neither of whom has military experience – may find it difficult to control the factions within the institution, observers say.

“The main problem for whoever is elected will be leading the armed forces. Maduro does not have the standing with the Army leadership that Chávez had,” says Francisco Usón, a retired Army general who was imprisoned in 2004 for making critical remarks on national television. “I think it will be very difficult for the next president to maintain control.”

No one is expecting a coup. In fact, after Chávez's death, the defense minister called for "unity, tranquility, and understanding." But keeping the institution unified in the absence of a strong leader who was viewed as an insider will no doubt be a challenge for the next president.

'Revolutionary' military

The military became highly politicized in recent years, despite a constitutional mandate that it remain neutral. Chávez nominated 11 ex-military officers for governorships last year and gave the military important political powers. He believed the armed forces were meant to follow in the footsteps of his hero Simon Bolivar's liberation armies.

Defense leaders pledged their continued support of Chavismo on the heels of Chávez's death, something some interpret as a thinly veiled warning of intervention if the Chavista candidate doesn't win. And yesterday, Minister of Defense Diego Molero Bellavia called the armed forces “revolutionary, anti-imperialist, socialist, and Chavista,” according to the information ministry.


But it wasn’t just the military that pledged allegiance to El Comandante, or The Commander. In Chávez’s death, the world is reminded of the deep loyalty many Venezuelans felt for their outspoken and extroverted leader.

On Thursday, thousands waited in line for hours to pay homage before today's funeral.

“I’m exhausted,” says Valmore Alcala, an accountant who drove six hours to Caracas and had been waiting in line for 12 hours. Mr. Alcala expected to wait three more hours to enter the military academy building.

“For a chance to see him a last time, it’s worth it,” Alcala says. “He formed us. He taught us how to love our fatherland.”

Mr. Maduro set a state funeral for today at 11 a.m., and announced to supporters that Chávez will lie in state for seven more days to give Venezuelans a chance to visit. He will then be embalmed and placed under glass so he could be seen "eternally." 

“I have one objective,” says Josefa Gretesol, a middle-aged journalist who waited 12 hours in line Thursday, “and that’s to see my president.”

'Jockeying for power'

"Chávez was the glue that united a whole people, from radical Marxists and socialists, to centrists and social democrats, and different factions in the military,” says Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Under the next president, the military “will be one of many actors jockeying for power and influence,” Mr. Jones says.  "The military is the one institution that has the ability to project force in the country, so there's always a potential for its involvement."

Like many leaders in a region known for military coups, Chávez both took advantage of and was victimized by the political tendencies of the armed forces.

He rose through the ranks of the institution to become a paratrooper lieutenant colonel by 1992, the year he led a coup attempt against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. A decade later, Chávez himself was the target of a failed coup attempt.

Following the 2002 coup that very briefly unseated him, Chávez “recast the politics of the military,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela.”

“After the [2002] coup attempt, he summarily dismissed many who participated,” Mr. Tinker Salas says. “This is not your father’s South American military,” he says, referring to the conservative Latin American militaries that often toppled progressive leaders.

Although both attempts failed, they were examples of how the 125,000-member military – mainly its 8,500 officers – can throw Venezuelan politics into crisis.

'More united than ever'

Chávez’s heavy-handed involvement may have kept the military in line, but it also created divisions within the institution.

For example, he brought in hundreds of Cuban military advisers, including some influential officers who work at the most important military complex, a move that not all officers were comfortable with. 

If Maduro is elected, as recent polling data project, the staunch leftist and ally of the Castro brothers could be faced with the potential tension of balancing his domestic policy interests with Cuban interests, says Mr. Usón, such as a continuing flow of Venezuelan petrodollars.

“And then within the military, there is a strong rejection of the Cuban presence,” he says. “That will be difficult for him to manage if he is elected president.”

Observers agree that the one man who would be perhaps best suited to control the military is not running for office.

Diosdado Cabello, a former military leader and current president of the National Assembly, has the experience and the personality to win the military’s respect.  

“Diosdado would have more influence,” says Usón. Chávez tapped Maduro as his successor, however, sidelining any expectations that Mr. Cabello might run.

For now, the armed forces are “more united than ever,” says Maj. Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, chief of the Operational Strategic Command. 

And last night, as military men dressed in their Navy blues and simple Army greens saluted proudly in the military academy before the coffin, it was clear that it is Chávez who remains their commander-in-chief.

– Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Boston.

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