The slow agony of Venezuela's Army
By Daniel Duquenal
Wednesday 21, January 2004 - Or... is it already dead? I have already addressed the way Chavez has been effectuating a slow deterioration of the Venezuelan Armed forces, helped along by the own ineptitude of these forces, cosseted for too long in a false sense of security. Two events tell us that the process might have been rather successful and that Chavez might have now a useless force, but a submissive one.
Scene 1: Three suns for a general
The highest grade in the Venezuelan Army, conceived as a supreme honor for leaders that distinguished themselves in the field of battle, was invented by Juan Vicente Gomez, our longest serving autocrat. It consisted of giving "Tres Soles" or three suns ("Stars" or "Marshall" in other countries). If Gomes held that rank, he was wise enough to give it to only one other person, his heir, Eleazar Lopez Contreras. We had to wait for Chavez loud operetta to see that title revived. No battles necessary this time.
The first one to benefit of the revived glory was General Lucas Rincon of April 11 2002 fame (or infamy). The third holder of the title is the one who announced that Chavez had resigned. Apparently, this did not affect his career after the restoration of the Great Leader. Lucas Rincon made it to the Interior Ministry.
Now, a fourth general has made it: Jorge Garcia Carneiro. His merits? Not many unless you count a canine like fidelity to the Great Leader. Low ranked in his graduating promotion. Not a brilliant career by any standards. His star (our should I say "sol") started to rise when he hitched his fate to Chavez in April 2002 (and he has been rumored not to be the most ardent of Chavez defenders in April 11).
Since then his ascent has been meteoritic (or is that shooting star/sol like?). The man of all situations he has been invaluable to Chavez for all sorts of cheap and denigrating activities such as selling subsidized produce in Avenida Bolivar or assaulting all sorts of targets that his master deemed to be assaulted, without looking at the legality of the event. Which probably made him think of himself an "expert" to the point of daring to express his constitutional opinion on the Recall Election in an infamous TV interview where it turned out that he did not even know what he was talking about.
This is the man that will supervise the Armed forces during the next crucial months, a man that has so sold his conscience, has been so scorned that he might be ready to do any foolish thing to preserve the power of his master. Even the nomination was yet another humiliation for Garcia Carneiro. Chavez announced it in his weekly peroration to an apparently surprised Garcia Carneiro that lamely could only utter a "Thank you President". I hope that it was an act, because if indeed it was a whim of Chavez to surprise him then Garcia Carneiro appeared to be even more a doormat than he might actually be.
What is really grave in this Chavez initiative is that it shows that he has stopped bothering with normal canals of the Army. If indeed it is the privilege of a sitting president to decide who gets the three suns, it remains that such an important nomination must be consulted and given to a meritorious individual and not a lackey. Has the Army been consulted? Has the Army indeed approved such a nomination? It is in these answers that we will fathom what is left of integrity and value in the armed forces.
Chavez is probably relishing the moment. He, the failed coup-monger, the Lieutenant in disgrace, is now the big shot deciding who gets what. Putting on the top a less than worthy candidate says a lot of Chavez cynical character.
Scene 2: a desolate Plaza Altamira
Tuesday morning I did drive around Plaza Altamira on an errand. Things are back to normal there, except for a large altar that props the surviving image of the Virgin Mary from the December rampage by chavista supporters. She is surrounded by fresh flowers, probably courtesy of town hall. People have lunch on the nearby benches as passer-by enjoy the fountains or just an outdoor space, clean and uncrowded. As I predicted December 8, it is now more than one month from the event and the dissident military have not returned. Nor is there any sign of them returning. Where are they? Into hiding? Arrested?
Long gone are the glory days of October 2002 when crowds thronged Plaza Altamira in support of the dissident military. From there they prodded actively the popular mood to initiate the general strike whose results are now more than questioned. As 2003 passed they petered away. Where they the elite of the Army that Chavez has destroyed? If they were so good, how could they commit so many political mistakes? How come they waited so long to oppose Chavez in a institutional way instead of waiting for April 2002 to come out of the wood works only to mess everything up when they handed down power to Carmona Estanga?
Where is the Army?
I am afraid that the Army of 1998 was the result of a major patronage program rather than a true professional force interested in the supreme well being of the Nation. Chavez did not have too much trouble weakening it to the point of giving us the sorry spectacle of the biggest barracks ceremony seen on TV, just to name a lousy three starred individual. An individual who, by the way, has gained so much weight since he is close to heaven that he did not fit into his formal uniform, almost as grotesque as his speech. If there were in such a rush to name him that they could not get him a new uniform, there was enough time to write a political discourse unbecoming in the voice of the army chief of a democratic country.
Clearly, the Venezuelan Army, as a political player has given a sorry image of itself, be it to remove Chavez from office or to keep him there. It is time to consider getting rid of whatever is left of the Venezuelan Army. Costa Rica has done it. Would it be that difficult to create a small defensive armed corps just to control the Colombian border? I think it is possible and desirable; I am a radical in my own ways.
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