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Military on sidelines of Venezuela crisis
by Staff Writers
Caracas (AFP) Jan 6, 2013

With Venezuela sliding into unknown territory over President Hugo Chavez's health, analysts say the normally quiescent military could be pulled in unpredictable directions, especially if a power struggle breaks out.

Like nearly every other institution here, the armed forces have been brilliantly mastered by Chavez, a former paratrooper who has assiduously promoted loyalists and stacked top positions in his government with active and retired military officers.

"They would never act by taking up arms," said Jose Machillanda, a political scientist and former officer who studies the military at the Universidad Simon Bolivar.

But if Chavez dies or worsening health leads to a constitutional crisis or a power struggle within the regime, then pressure will build on what observers say is already a fragmented officer corps, analysts predicted.

"Today the situation is a political spasm and anything could happen," said Machillanda.

With two notable exceptions, the military has been careful to stay within constitutional bounds, deferring to the country's elected leaders since the fall of its last military dictatorship in 1958.

The exceptions both involved Chavez -- a failed coup attempt he led as a young officer in 1992 when he first burst onto the political stage, and a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him from power before being reversed two days later.

Perhaps chastened by the experience, Chavez has kept the military very close, rewarding favorites, purging officers whose loyalties were suspect and relying on Cuban advisers to keep watch over them.

At the same time, he has given military officers an unusually high political profile -- governors of a dozen of the country's 23 states are former military, and officers hold key cabinet positions, with the army overwhelmingly represented.

"That is to say that the army is called upon to play a stellar role in this whole pattern of institutional crisis that could occur in Venezuela," said Rocio San Miguel, who is also an expert on the Venezuelan military.

"Without any doubt, there will be no unexpected situation within the nation's armed forces," she said.

But if Chavez fails to take the oath of office January 10, as called for by the constitution, a deepening political uncertainty "would have a broad impact on political life."

Vice President Nicolas Maduro late Friday laid out a legal rationale for delaying Chavez's swearing in indefinitely without his giving up power, even on a temporary basis.

Maduro argued that the constitution provides "a dynamic flexibility" that allows the president to take the oath of office before the Supreme Court at some later date.

But the opposition insists that if Chavez fails to show up for his inauguration to another six-year term, he must at least take a temporary leave and hand over power to the speaker of the National Assembly.

"If they stick to constitutional forms in the face of Chavez's temporary or absolute absence, I don't see any type of military intervention outside of the constitution," said San Miguel.

"If they abandon the constitutional path or institutional politics -- that is, leave an ambiguous situation -- there could be militarist temptations by the different factions."

Rather than a unified military response to the crisis, she believes various factions within the military would go their separate ways in pursuit of their own interests, and contenders for power will compete to win them over.

San Miguel said Chavez has proven exceptional in his ability to dominate the military as a whole, a feat his followers are less likely to be able to pull off.

"I do not believe in a Chavismo in the armed forces of the nation without Chavez," she said.


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