Chavez's Military Maneuvers

Hugo Chavez is not the type to beg. In fact, since his landslide election in 1998, critics of the Venezuelan president have called him an autocrat. That made the nocturnal meeting in the gardens of the presidential residence this month even more bizarre. Till dawn, Chavez tried to persuade National Guard Capt. Luis Garcia Morales to cancel his call for the president to resign or face a civil-disobedience campaign. Chavez knew to take a military threat seriously: as an officer in 1992, he tried to overthrow the government and failed. But Garcia Morales refused to stand down.

Next Sunday Venezuelans go to the polls in national, state and local elections under the new 1999 Constitution. There is little doubt Chavez will win. He leads his chief rival, retired Lt. Col. Francisco Arias--a fellow coup plotter who broke with Chavez earlier this year--by at least 10 points in polls. And after 20 years of economic decline and government rot, the country's poor majority likes Chavez. But large parts of the middle class and well-to-do consider him a tyrant. Amid those seething divisions, Chavez is campaigning to recruit the military to his cause. How well he succeeds may well determine the tenor of his next term--and, some officers say, its duration.

With few allies among the civilian establishment and an extreme loathing for political parties he calls corrupt, Chavez wants the military in politics. He has appointed dozens of officers to government posts and supports soldiers running for office. The new constitution--drafted by an assembly stacked with Chavistas--gives members of the armed forces the right to vote and, in a dramatic break with the past, redefines their role. Rather than being "apolitical, nondeliberative and obedient," the soldiers are called to "active participation in national development."

But Chavez's attempts to co-opt the soldiers may backfire. Many don't want to be dragged into the country's fractious politics--including, ironically, Capt. Garcia Morales. Earlier this month he announced the formation of a military-civilian "Patriotic Junta" to remove the president. He insisted that the junta favored peaceful disobedience, not a coup, but admitted to NEWSWEEK that the group had debated assassinating Chavez: "A comrade, a sniper... argued that it would be easy to shoot him, and that would be the end of the problem." The proposal was dropped because it would destabilize the country. As thanks for his foray into politics, though, the captain was expelled from the National Guard. (He is surprised his punishment wasn't more severe.)

It probably won't be the last time soldiers discuss getting rid of Chavez. Officers say dissension in the ranks is growing. The military resents being conscripted to Chavez's political program, especially when it means carrying out social projects like running produce markets and cleaning drains in poor neighborhoods. "Members of the armed forces are generally conservative," said retired Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich, Defense minister when Chavez attempted his coup. "They feel their profession is not being respected." He believes a coup is possible--even likely. But even without a coup, restless troops could make for a rocky second term.