Invasion or Civil War for Venezuela?

(International Relations and Security Network, 23/03/2006)


For years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has claimed to be protecting his people from the corrupt and greedy Venezuelan elite class, represented by the Venezuelan political opposition. Now he is protecting them from an external foe, the US, which he has accused of intending to invade Venezuela. Riding on the rhetoric of an eventual US invasion, Chavez is building up a massive civilian militia answerable directly, and only, to him. That militia, however, is more likely intended to deter a military coup than a US invasion.


After the 2002 attempt to overthrow his government, Chavez changed tactics, taking on a larger role as protector of his people from the US. As such, he must continue to claim that the US will someday invade Venezuela and that they only thing that will keep the Yankees at bay is two million trained civilians.


The formation of a civilian militia gives physical presence and weight to Chavez's rhetoric that the US will one day invade. Considering the many rumors of a palace coup and the shuffling of military commanders in Chavez's top brass, however, the formation of a civilian militia looks more like another bulwark intended to protect himself against a military-led coup d'etat.


The only conventional army likely to threaten Chavez is Venezuela's own military forces, the FAN. In the event of a successful FAN-orchestrated coup, two million hardcore supporters with military training could be ordered to drag the country into a civil war. Given the world's dependence on Venezuelan oil, such a possibility would have serious international repercussions.


Chavez-controlled Militia


The first week of March saw the beginning of a two million-strong reservists' program, which Chavez has been talking about for years and officially announced on 14 April last year.


Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Benavides is in charge of training the instructors, who will in turn train the reservists. He has emphasized the art of guerrilla warfare. In an interview with the BBC, Benavides lined up a group of civilians to demonstrate the art of surprise in guerrilla warfare. "On the surface they look like ordinary people on the street. But if you look underneath their jackets, you will see they are hiding knives, catapults, and pistols," the BBC quoted him as saying to an audience at the training grounds.


Taking lessons from the Viet Cong and the Cuban Revolution, Benavides will train officers to teach a volunteer militia how to conduct urban guerrilla warfare. The civilian militia adheres to the doctrine of asymmetrical warfare.


Harnessing a large force of militarily trained civilians to a doctrine of guerrilla warfare has many of Venezuela's older generals confused because it is a doctrine not espoused by the FAN, nor is it a doctrine Chavez himself was trained when rising through the ranks of the Venezuelan military.


In training and military doctrine, the civilian militia will be completely separate from Venezuela's traditional military rank and file. Additionally, the militia is not part of the traditional chain of command. Its leaders report directly to Chavez and no one else.


Since Chavez has made public his plans for a civilian militia that he controls, some of his loyalists in the military have expressed concern at this circumvention of the traditional chain of command. Perhaps knowing that his civilian militia announcement would provoke ire, Chavez made some command structure changes to protect his back with hardcore supporters.


Colonel Cliver Antonio Alcala Cordones, for one, would not hesitate to carry out presidential orders to use lethal force against military rebels or civilian dissidents, argue analysts with the US-based private intelligence company StratFor. Alcala is currently the commander of the elite presidential honor guard, tasked with protecting Chavez's life.


Another hardcore Chavez supporter, Major General Ali de Jesus Uzcategui Duque, has been given command over the country's internal defense strategy, called Plan Republica, according to StratFor. This plan has a Caracas metropolitan area element called Plan Avila. In the event of a military rebellion or civilian uprising, Plan Avila would be initiated to protect the palace, prominent public services buildings, and the oil infrastructure. General Uzcategui also has the authority to impede any military orders or actions the president finds disagreeable.


Analysts argue that by placing these men in their current positions, Chavez is working to defend himself from the possibility of an assassination attempt by a close personal aide or a military rebellion led by an officer in command of the country's best-trained soldiers.


Rumors of a coup attempt


When Chavez talks about territorial invasion, he implies that an outside aggressor would invade Venezuela to capture control of the country's energy assets. Since the coup in 2002, Chavez has focused his rhetoric on the eventual invasion of US military forces. He has repeated his belief that the US would invade so often that US ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said in April last year that "the United States has never invaded, is not invading at this moment, and will never invade Venezuela".


But Chavez doubts the sincerity.


A string of events that points to plans to overthrow Chavez contribute to his paranoia.


When Chavez announced in April last year that the planned civilian militia force would be under his direct control, reports at the time indicated that FAN ranking commander General Raul Baudel strongly objected to the unilateral decision to control what would become a considerable force of trained and armed Chavez supporters.


Chavez made his announcement during a ceremony to commemorate the second anniversary of a failed attempt to overthrow his government. The message to his enemies was quite clear.


Almost two months after the announcement, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel announced that the government suspected the political opposition was planning a military coup. Two days prior to that announcement, Venezuelan Defense Minister General Jorge Garcia Carneiro said that pamphlets urging a military revolt against Chavez had been circulated in various military installations around the country.


Not a month later, opposition leader Andres Velasquez, announced that Chavez had decided to postpone a military parade because he believed it would be the stage for an attempt on his life. FAN Commander General Baudel said there was no intelligence to back up such claims. However, Chavez claimed he had intelligence that pointed to an assassination attempt on 24 June, the day of the parade.


The day before the parade, General Melvin Lopez Hidalgo, a member of Venezuela's National Defense Council, confirmed that an officer had been arrested at Fort Tiuna at the FAN's Third Army Division base in Caracas. It remains unclear if the arrested officer was connected to the alleged assassination attempts or the anonymous pamphlets.


Audio tapes that allegedly contained details of a planned military coup surfaced in early December. Nicolas Maduro, chairman of Venezuela's National Assembly and member of the Fifth Republic Movement party, presented the tapes to the National Assembly on 8 December. They allegedly contain a conversation among retired army officers, who were plotting to overthrow Chavez's government by blowing up oil infrastructure before taking over military headquarters.


Asymmetrical warfare


What military analysts call asymmetrical warfare, also referred to as fourth-generation warfare, is characterized by war between a nation-state and a non-state actor. Latin America's history is riddled with examples of how asymmetrical warfare has been used to overthrow a government, such as the Cuban Revolution, or used to prolong a struggle, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


In some cases, these non-state actors have been integrated into politics, such as the FLMN in El Salvador. Chavez is in a position to take advantage of this history to promote his ideology of a region-wide resistance against US imperialism. It is convenient rhetoric that veils what many believe are his intentions to deter a military coup.


By the end of 2007, it is quite possible that a total of two million Chavez supporters will have been trained and reinserted back into their normal lives, ready to resist at a moment's notice. It is highly unlikely that this militia will be called to protect Venezuela from an outside invader.


Rather, they could be called on to protect Chavez's regime from a cadre of military officers and others who want to remove him from office. If Chavez manages to survive such a coup attempt, he may go quietly or he may seek to embody the spirit of Cuba's Fidel Castro and regional revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevarra by leading his faithful into a civil war.


The FAN is believed to have at least 80,000 professional soldiers, who could be forced to face two-million urban guerrillas.


A civil war in Venezuela would be intense, extremely destructive, and spell doom for the future of Venezuela's economy, society, and oil output. Due to the nature of asymmetrical warfare, it would be nearly impossible to completely eradicate a group of dedicated and trained Chavez supporters.