When General Néstor Reverol was appointed Venezuela’s new home secretary, much of the world interpreted it as an ominous sign of growing military influence. The appointment was a strange one in itself: just one day after Reverol was indicted in the US on charges of drug trafficking, president Nicolás Maduro called him “an exemplary officer”, “a brave man”, and the ideal candidate to stake out the mafioso gangs supposedly holding Venezuela to ransom.
This was the latest in a growing number of military appointments to Maduro’s government. Only a fortnight before, the incumbent defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino López, was given control of a national distribution network that oversees the administration of food, medicine and basic goods in an attempt to ease the country’s notorious shortages. From here on, all other ministers will answer to López as the second-in-command of Venezuela’s so-called “economic war” on hoarding, speculation and neo-imperialist forces, embodied on the ground by black marketeers and small-time capitalists.
That so many army officials are being nominated for political positions has not gone unnoticed. Some onlookers are speculating that it amounts to a clandestine coup against the increasingly unstable Venezuelan president, who seems increasingly unable or unwilling to tackle the hyperinflation that has brought the country to paralysis.
All this concern, however, is long overdue. A much longer and slower process of militarisation has been underway for some time.
The Venezuelan military has been extending its influence ever since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998. An iconic and deeply controversial leftist president, Chávez experienced a political awakening when undergoing training in military sciences and humanism. During his presidency, the armed forces in their many different guises steadily crept into all areas of Venezuelan society.
This began when Chávez announced the start of “Plan Bolívar 2000”, the first of several much-celebrated welfare “missions” designed to rehabilitate the military’s image, which had never recovered from the shanty town massacres of the 1989 Caracazo riots. As part of the plan, soldiers were sent door-to-door to deliver vaccinations and repair schools, homes and churches, as well as co-ordinating educational programmes and improving sanitation.
This humane face of the army found special occasion for display in the aftermath of the massive 1999 landslides, when military officials managed rescue operations, distributed humanitarian aid, and protected the local population. Checkpoints and curfews were introduced to curb theft and looting.
So the advent of military figures in ministerial posts does not signal the start of a new regime: it’s the apotheosis of an old one. And Maduro has been talking about it for some time.
He has often spoken of a “civic-military union”, an idea that Chávez picked up from Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Maduro himself is Chávez’s hand-picked successor, but he’s also a civilian often deemed less qualified for the role of president than certain of his military counterparts. As the crises in finance, energy, and food scarcity have worsened, this union has become more pronounced in the everyday lives of Venezuelans.
Motorway tolls are manned by Kalashnikov-brandishing cadets, supermarket queues and state-run markets are controlled by high-ranking officers, petrol stations and oil refineries are guarded by men in uniform and young recruits search through passengers’ luggage before they are permitted to leave the international airport. This constant and consistent surveillance helps to intercept dissent before it reaches its fullest expression, and reminds Venezuela that power remains highly concentrated within the state – albeit not necessarily around its president elect.
If required, this power will be implemented with violence. Earlier this year, at least 21 illegal miners disappeared in the south-east state of Bolívar. Some Venezuelans suspect they were killed as part of an operation to make way for the Orinoco Mining Arch, a project for the extraction of minerals that’s partially funded by Chinese investors.
Analysts have claimed that the army provides such widespread mechanisms of social control to the Venezuelan government in exchange for privileged access to imported goods and subsidised petrodollars procured at rock-bottom prices. This would explain why Maduro still refuses to drop the country’s remaining currency controls in spite of the abundant evidence they are wrecking the economy.
That the armed forces have already asserted themselves in some of the most precarious sectors of Venezuelan society points towards fairly solid foundations for a full-blown political takeover, perhaps under the aegis of Padrino López. He was a close ally of Chávez, particularly after coming to his defence during the failed 2002 coup attempt, and has long been an influential force in the high echelons of government.
Yet so long as Maduro manages to stave off the recall referendum for a little longer, such a move might not be necessary. If the referendum can’t be held before the spring of 2017, when Maduro will celebrate four years in office, his elected mandate will pass automatically to Aristóbulo Istúriz, the ruling chavista vice-president.
Should that happen, the army may well remain backstage for the time being. But it will remain omniscient, and its mostly latent power will scarcely be undermined.