Division In The Ranks

At first blush, it looked like a blast from Latin America's authoritarian past. Once again, graying generals and admirals were demanding the immediate resignation of a democratically elected president. But the drama that unfolded in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas last week contained a surprising twist to the usual story line. There were no tanks on the streets or other signs of a brewing military coup: instead, the 14 senior officers who took over a public square to repudiate the government of President Hugo Chavez did so in the name of the country's Constitution. And within hours these career soldiers--among them Army Gen. Nestor Gonzalez--were being hailed as national heroes by opposition leaders and ordinary Venezuelans who want Chavez to step down and call new elections as soon as possible. "These are not men who would stage a coup,'' said Conchita de Perez Badell, a 56-year-old economist who went to Caracas's France Plaza along with thousands of other civilians to salute the men in uniform. "They are democrats who want the president to resign, and civil society has come out to defend them."

When he was elected by a landslide vote nearly four years ago, Chavez made a bold decision to redefine the role of the Venezuelan armed forces. No longer would the military be limited to its traditional function of defending the country against external threats. Instead the former Army paratrooper brought the armed forces out of their barracks and put them on the front lines of his "peaceful revolution." Soldiers were deployed in poor, pro-Chavez urban neighborhoods to rebuild schools, supervise open-air markets and even give free haircuts. As the head of a so-called military-civilian government, Chavez said he wanted to break down the barriers separating civilians and soldiers in society. He even amended the Constitution to give voting rights to active-duty servicemen.

Today, however, with the armed forces clearly split between the pro-Chavez top brass and the dozens of dissidents calling for the president's resignation on public streets, he is surely regretting that decision. Thanks to Chavez, it has become respectable again for men in uniform to meddle in politics. "The president has created a very bad environment," says Prof. Isabel Bacalao of the Venezuelan Navy War College. "These senior officers are now trying to avert an outbreak of fighting within the armed forces themselves."

The internal rifts inside the armed forces reflect the de facto stalemate that has gripped the country since last April, when the 48-year-old ex-paratrooper barely survived a bungled coup. In mid-October the political opposition revived its campaign to drive Chavez from office, and last week's general strike, the third in the past 10 months, brought much of Venezuela to a standstill. But with more than four years still left in his term, the man who calls himself El Comandante shows no signs of quitting. That prompted the military dissidents to jump into the fray and force the issue.

At first the government tried to dismiss the officers' protest as a cheap publicity stunt. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel described one large demonstration as a "circus'' replete with "clowns, animals and jugglers.'' But the sneering subsided as the ranks of the dissidents gradually swelled. Last Friday a judge issued arrest warrants against 43 military and civilian antigovernment protesters on charges of fomenting rebellion. Chavez himself joined the war of words, calling the dissident officers "fascists" who were hatching another uprising behind the fig leaf of a civil-disobedience campaign. Tensions in the country rose further when the president said the protests warranted a response not just from the state but also from "the people." That phrase made some jittery Venezuelans wonder whether gangs of pro-Chavez goons might soon descend on the plaza and end the pro-democracy vigil.

By themselves, the dissident officers do not pose a serious threat to the Chavez government. A number of them played prominent roles in the short-lived overthrow of Chavez earlier this year and, as a result, had discredited themselves in the eyes of their fellow soldiers. Others are desk officers who have no armed troops at their disposal to deploy in the streets. And in a telling show of support for Chavez, a series of division commanders and garrison heads delivered televised statements late last week reaffirming their loyalty to the government. But the involvement of dissident officers in street protests has clearly galvanized the loose-knit coalition of opposition parties, trade unionists and businessmen seeking Chavez's ouster. Though without clear leadership, the group is calling for new elections or, at the very least, a plebiscite on his 44-month-old rule.

The scene at the France Plaza in Caracas acquired the festive air of an outdoor concert as the week wore on. Thousands chanted, "He must go today!" The mere sight of a soldier walking toward the plaza triggered frenzied outbursts of adulation worthy of a rock star, and volunteers circulated through the crowd collecting signatures for a petition demanding a referendum on the Chavez regime by early December.

Like most Latin American democracies, Venezuela had long barred active-duty members of the armed forces from direct participation in the country's domestic politics. But the 1999 Constitution drafted by Chavez and his allies removed that restriction. A key article in the new Constitution also gave Venezuelan citizens the legal right to disavow a government that "contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees.'' The dissidents have repeatedly invoked that clause to fend off charges that they are fomenting another putsch under the guise of a civil-disobedience movement--and legal scholars in Venezuela have backed that viewpoint. "This is not a seizure of power," says constitutional lawyer Hermann Escarra. "This is a declaration calling on civil society to unite efforts in search of a democratic and constitutional alternative."

The opposition's main gripe is the dire state of the economy. Chavez's leftist rhetoric and populist economic policies have shattered investor confidence in Venezuela. More than 4,000 companies have closed since he took office, and this year alone an estimated $8 billion has left the country in capital flight. Were it not for Argentina, oil-rich Venezuela would rank as the leading basket case of the hemisphere: the country's gross national product will shrink by nearly 7 percent this year, and six of 10 people live below the poverty line. Beyond that, Chavez's democratic credentials have been devalued by the government's unsuccessful attempts to cow the country's independent news media and trade-union movement. According to the latest public-opinion polls, Chavez's once sky-high approval rating has fallen to about 30 percent.

Not everyone in the anti-Chavez camp is pleased with the participation of dissident Army officers in their cause. "It's opportunism on their part," groused community activist Victoria Bustillos. "They're trying to ride the groundswell of popular discontent with Chavez, but this is not the right way to go." But one veteran Chavez watcher believes the president will never relinquish power unless he comes under some kind of military pressure. "More than the president of a democracy, Chavez considers himself the leader of a revolution," says author Alberto Garrido. "He believes politics to be a continuation of war [by other means] and he considers himself to be at war. Only some kind of military action would cause him to resign."

The political opposition will probably have to be patient. The president has ruled out holding a referendum on his administration until next August at the earliest. In the meantime, the millions of Venezuelans who have soured on their president now see the dissident officers as their best hope for removing Chavez from office in the foreseeable future. "This is the only way of getting this monster off our backs," says Ada Tovar, a 45-year-old lawyer who once believed in Chavez. "We can't afford to give up, and we will get him out with pressure from civil society." That Venezuela's civil society apparently now includes unhappy men in uniform, though, is an ominous sign.