Unión Cívico-Militar is the Venezuelan Way

The practice of having the military rule alongside — or even over and above — civilians, long predates the Chávez era — and will likely outlive it, too.

In their essay yesterday, when Quico Toro and Pedro Rosas pondered the future of the Civilian-Military alliance in relation to the coming disaster known as the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (ANC), they rightly wondered whether the emergence of a parallel meta-sovereign would cause enough friction to make the regime implode.

After all, there is no Military sector in the ANC, the former military officers who are actual candidates are too ingrained in the Socialist Party (PSUV) and, despite their influence, the military has remained somewhat independent from full-on meddling by the Party. Ultimately, they argue, the unión cívico-militar as it appeared in Chávez mind is under unprecedented strain.

I agree with that: friction is likely. Not because the military is not inside the ANC, but because it is above it. After all, the only power in Venezuela that can uphold whether the ANC proceeds or not is the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana. Could the ANC dare to alter the very body that guarantees its existence?

In that sense, the unión cívico-militar has proven even more successful than Chávez dared to imagine.

Quico and Pedro pose a number of interesting points, regarding the balance of power between the different parts of the ruling coalition. There are of course issues with the sprawling vested interests that the military holds dear, and that these might be affected by some of the most “out-there” proposals. Despite all of this, I think “Cívico-Militar” government is here to stay, not just as a feature of Chavismo, but even beyond it.

The only power in Venezuela that can uphold whether the ANC proceeds or not is the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana.

The roots of the “citizen-in-arms” idea goes back, way back to Bolívar, Páez, Falcón and Zamora. But for analytical purposes let’s stick to governments ruling after the modernization of the Armed Forces and the creation of the professional officer class. So, let’s talk about the post-Gómez era: 1935 to this day.

Over these 82 years, there have merely been 40 with clear civilian dominance (and even that is debatable, given the veto power held by the military in foreign affairs and issues relating to the Armed Forces). Humbly, I propose the following timeline (which may harbor a number of oversimplifications):

  • 1936-1945 Postgomecismo (two former ministers of War served as back-to-back presidents): Military ascendancy
  • 1945-1948 Trienio Adeco (mid-ranking officers put a revolutionary party in power): Military collaboration with a civilian government
  • 1948-1957 Década Militar: Need I say more?
  • 1958 Junta de Gobierno (the Armed Forces topple Pérez Jiménez for muddying up their power, they are reeled in): Military action and hibernation.
  • 1959-1998 Puntofijo Party Rule (the Armed forces hold veto power, and use it): Military hibernation, with not so tame or infrequent growls.
  • 1999-2017 Chavismo (a former Army officer leads the government until he dies, purging the Military time and again; then the Military uphold his successor): Military ascendancy and increasing symbiosis with ruling party.

So, the last Century has seen the military in government more often than not, and this cannot escape the mind of anyone vying for power in Venezuela. Alberto Müller Rojas, the brilliant military mandarin that bridged both recent eras, once said that as a youngster he wanted to be President, and that is why he enrolled in the Army. He also said that the Puntofijo era dominated the military brass by co-opting officers through corruption and high-level clientelism; that the party leaders despised the Armed Forces, but ultimately feared them even more. Some loyalty was expected, but civilian rule was always tense.

The hope on the Left (where Müller Rojas spent most of his public life) was to do what Acción Democrática had succeeded in doing in 1945, and avoiding what it had failed to avoid in 1948: get into power through military might and then reshape the Armed Forces as an ideological and revolutionary force that wouldn’t betray them.

That couldn’t happen in the sixties, though if the Carupanazo and Porteñazo are any indication, it came damn close. The mistrust between the old military brass and the Puntofijo parties gave them an opening, when anti-communist sentiment had subsided enough to be filled with disdain for old political hands: the fringe left-wing that held onto the idea of forcibly toppling bourgeois democracy, promoted conspiracies and sects, one of which was the MBR-200. They tried their luck in 1992, and won on the same platform in 1998.

From the very beginning, Chávez tried to both dissuade the old military brass from betraying him by allowing them space for corruption and leverage (Plan Bolívar 2000, for example), while disarming political interference with rank promotions (this happened first in 1999, and it grew worse every year since), purging any discontented officer thereof (the most glaring examples of this was the military crisis of 2002-2003, and the Baduel purge of 2007).

Alberto Müller Rojas, the brilliant military mandarin that bridged both recent eras, once said that as a youngster he wanted to be President, and that is why he enrolled in the Army.

The military, in Chavista doctrine, is the most genuine and virtuous representation of the people. In Marxist-Leninist doctrine, they are tools of the vanguard party. Madurismo, progeny of both, has strengthened this: the military holds more power and clout since before the death of Hugo Chávez; the military is beyond reproach, embodying the revolution even more succinctly than the party. This makes them safe. This is why they do not need a Constituyente Militar, nor would Maduro broker it.

Chavista and Socialist ideology puts them at the top and give them a legitimacy that no other political ideology besides full-on militarism have provided. The military are, in that sense, the only citizens that matter in the Venezuelan People’s Republic. Cívico-militar does not mean what we think, and it still gives the Armed forces ample room to make Maduro or his successor a puppet.

It is, of course, a dangerous game. What if the military choose to rule without the party? Why do they keep the PSUV at arm’s length? Because despite all ideological mores, interests do play a role. We cannot underestimate that, but I must disabuse anyone who thinks that if the chickens come home to roost, they will let the hens take control of the henhouse this time.