I wanted to understand for myself the rare radicalism of the Venezuelan military. How did they themselves understand the central role they played in civilian society? What were they like as people? Almost casually I mentioned it to Roland Denis, a critical Chavista, or supporter of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Immediately he got on the phone. ‘Be at the ministry of internal commerce and industry at 8.30 in the morning,’ he told my interpreter, Liza Figuera-Clark, and me.
After a three-hour wait at the ministry, we are told to return at 4pm. When we do so we are ushered in to meet the minister, Estela Naveda, a feisty woman with a direct and informal manner. When I explain that I want to understand the role of the military in the political process, she makes a phone call. She announces that a chauffeur will take us to the Venezuelan army commander. She tells her assistant, Dayana, to accompany us. ‘Don’t tell anyone where you are going.’ A small car with blackened windows drives us across the city. We end up driving through a huge parade ground full of soldiers seemingly engaged in a mass jog. We come to a large white building and are led to a waiting room by men in camouflage gear and red Chavez berets. Its centrepiece is a huge and rather forbidding picture of ‘the Liberator’, Simon Bolivar, surrounded by other, military, founders of the Bolivarian state. The room is lined with cabinets containing various Bolivar memorabilia. Big plastic sofas are arranged around a vast table with gifts and trophies dedicated to the man we have come to see: Commandante General Raúl Baduel. We join the queue of military men – and one woman – lolling in a rather unmilitary and weary manner, waiting to see the general.
As a newcomer to Venezuela, it is only in this waiting room that I learn that Baduel is something of a hero for his role in the resistance to the coup to bring down Chavez in 2002. Baduel was then commander of the Parachute Brigade in Maracay, whose military complex, with its Libertador air base, home of the country’s F-16 fighter aircraft, is strategic to military control of the country. Baduel had been at military college with Chavez. Like Chavez and many other officers, he was from a working class background and had been to university. He had also been one of the rebel officers who formed the Bolivarian Movement with Chavez and launched the unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 against the repressive regime of President Carlos Andres Perez. It was not surprising, therefore, that he should refuse to take orders from the anti-Chavez putschists. He galvanised like-minded officers to rebel too. This military resistance helped to trigger a popular uprising in the capital.
Dayana and Liza have plenty of time to fill me in on the history. We’ve been warned that it might be a matter of an hour or so. Five hours, several cups of tea and occasional apologetic visits from the commandante later, we are ushered in to the most extraordinary office I’ve ever seen. Straight out of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is a mixture of a shrine – statuettes of the Virgin Mary and other saints everywhere, hundreds of them, plus an almost ‘life’-size statue of an angel slaughtering a wild animal; a military museum – a set of Samurai swords; a library – books piled high on his desks, including a vast tome entitled Power; and a family portrait gallery. There is a slight smell of incense. Gregorian chants play in the background. The general tells us he also plays Tao music but not all his guests are so keen on it.
We sit down amidst apologies and reassurances. Baduel has a stocky, big build with dark hair, a darkish complexion, browny-green eyes and a responsive mobility of expression. He gives us an illustrated guide to the new Venezuelan constitution based on the character of Expuiry’s Le Petit Prince and holds up the children’s – and adult’s – favourite from its pride of place at the front of his desk. ‘My favourite book,’ he says. ‘You seem to be enjoying your role in civilian politics?’ I suggest. He takes it as a cue to explain himself. ‘I’m quite religious and a fan of oriental cultures. I’m Catholic, I believe in reincarnation and I’m also interested in Taoism. It might seem a contradiction for a general.’ He begins to relax. He seems to revel in contradictions – which is just as well in Venezuela. ‘I have some special coffee for you,’ he says as he lifts a huge jar of black liquid with foliage sticking out. ‘It’s made in the Amazon, from a shaman recipe with guarana and many other herbs. They gave it to me after I did some work there. It’s very energising – probably an aphrodisiac too,’ he adds, a little mischievously. ‘It helps to be a little eccentric,’ he says in response to our bemused looks. ‘I would have liked to retire in July as commander of the army and be closer to my brigade of parachutists,’ he confesses. ‘But I always try to lay things in the hand of God – though there could have been a dose of ego in me in not stepping down as commander of the parachutists.’ ‘You’re still a parachutist?’ ‘I still do jumps, geriatric jumps. Not further than 16,000 feet.’
We move on to the leaps that the army has made into civilian life. Baduel paints a picture of the army’s initial indispensability to meeting the needs of the poor but of steadily withdrawing as civil institutions grow stronger. ‘Our role in civil development will continue but diminish. We are pleased that not all our capacities go to war – that they also go towards peace. In the long run,’ he says, ‘we hope to turn swords into ploughshares.’
His constant reference point is the constitution drawn up the year after Chavez won the presidential elections in 1998. It was the defence of the constitution that led him to refuse to obey those who led the coup against Chavez. ‘The Venezuelan people have given the armed forces a mandate,’ Baduel says proudly. ‘Our civil duty is to be at the service of the people and their interests, like the apostles.’ For him this means that the military are ‘part of everything’. ‘We have a holistic, systemic vision of national security.’ He lists the army’s main purposes. First is defence, like any other army but with a specifically Venezuelan twist: ‘Although we share the pacifism of the Venezuelan people, we have to be prepared.’ Having studied for a year in School of the Americas ‘under constant watch for being one of the rebel officers’, he is very alert to the greatest source of danger. Indeed, a few days before our interview, a group of officers had been arrested, charged with spying for the US embassy.
The distinctive role of the Chavez-led army is in its active participation in national development. In 2000, the army was responsible for implementing Plan Bolivar, an ambitious plan aimed at improving the living standards of the poor by cleaning up streets and schools, improving the environment to fight endemic diseases, building up the social infrastructure and at the same time providing employment in both urban and rural areas. The military has gradually withdrawn: ‘Now with the missiones [run by a combination of Cuban professionals – especially doctors – and community organisations], it is no longer a military operation but military units play an important part helping with logistical matters – for example, getting health services to people who don’t have easy physical access to them. In some cases we contribute to community organising and take on different tasks but we don’t participate in political activity.’Baduel is very firm about both the political rights and the political limits of the military. ‘We have the right to vote. But we do not engage in political militancy. We can have sympathies to political parties but we cannot be members or be involved in propaganda.’
At one point, a large number of ministers in the Chavez government were from the military. Now Baduel says it is ‘just the ministry responsible for the distribution of food that is run by a military officer. Retired military officers are ministers for infrastructure, the ministry for the interior (home office) and tourism.’ While he is proud of the army’s role in social reconstruction, he is also at pains to stress its limits. ‘I don’t believe we have a messianic role or even that defence matters are exclusively ours,’ he says. How does the general see the role of the armed forces in addressing the corruption and chaos that is endemic in Venezuelan state institutions? ‘You are asking very direct questions,’ he replies. ‘But as the Liberator said, we must face the harsh truth. There are two major tasks. The first is to radicalise opinion and to educate people. This education must encompass people’s technical and scientific capacities so that they can contribute to Venezuela’s productive strength. The second challenge is to raise ethical and moral standards.’ ‘We have to set an example in our administration of resources, in our transparency and above all in being absolutely ruthless towards corruption,’ he says of the army. He reinforces his point by getting up and taking one of the samurai swords out of its sheath and swinging it in an ‘off with their heads’ gesture. ‘There have been colleagues,’ he admits, ‘who have not been guided by these ethics and in these instances we don’t hesitate to use the sabre.’ It’s time for another round of the black liquid.
Suitably fortified, I pose the problem that has been puzzling me all week. On the one hand, it is clear that Chavez’s programme of reform really has unleashed a process of democratic popular organisation in the barrios, at the base of society. On the other hand, at the top, there is Chavez acting on behalf of the people. In between, there are few credible democratic structures. People have little faith in the Congress or in political parties. There is a democratic vacuum – which is one reason why corrpution and bureaucracy continues, because there is no effective force to stop it. ‘Do you recognise this problem?’ I ask. ‘What is the army’s role in resolving it?’. ‘Yes this vacuum is a problem. The answer goes back to education. It’s through education that society can consolidate its ethical and political values. The army has to occupy this vacuum between the base and the higher parts of the state. But we have to be careful. I lament it but sometimes military institutions get involved in institutions that aren’t in their jurisdiction. We have to remain the servants. We have to keep reminding ourselves of our apostolic role.’
I wonder how far the army itself has been democratised and we get a surprising reply, coming from a military commander. ‘We made an agreement that in the army democracy must mean dissent and argument. We must strengthen democracy in what we are doing day by day so that it is not a dead letter. We need participatory democracy at the highest level.’ Participatory democracy in the army? There are limits. An army is an army, even in Venezuela. ‘Our institution is vertical,’ says the general. ‘But we have respect for others who play a different role. Our structures are governed by values of obedience, discipline, subordination but not submission. The commandante has to be very attentive to the ideas of his advisory staff. But the chief has to take responsibility for the decisions. This is the loneliness of being in charge.’
I put two final questions that have worried me about the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. First, did the general think that Chavez had ended up depending more on the army than perhaps he intended, for civil functions? Again Baduel responds openly: ‘The president has signalled that as a result of his inheritance as a soldier, he looks for support from the army. But he has also made it clear that he has to gradually lessen its involvement. Chavez uses our institution to articulate the links between the base and the top. He does not substitute civilians with army people.’ ‘But isn’t the army acting as a substitute for effective political parties?’ I ask. ‘Throughout the world, there is a profound review of political parties as intermediary mechanisms. Here, over the past decades, political parties have gradually lost legitimacy amongst the majority of people. The way I see it is that the president is promoting structures and debate about new political structures in line with the times.’
The discussion could have gone on and on. But it is now nearly midnight. We thank the general and prepare to leave. He then goes to the bedroom annexed to his office and brings out three copies of a poster, which he scrolls open to reveal photos of himself and colleagues from the Parachutist Brigade jumping out of a plane. He somewhat timidly points to himself and makes a joke about being modest. The poster, from 2001, commemorates the 52nd anniversary of military parachuting and 40 years of freefall parachuting in Venezuela. Then Baduel hands me a copy of a booklet about women in the Venezuelan Armed Forces. ‘My wife would never forgive me if I didn’t give this to you,’ he says. He tells us it is time to call Estela to wake her and inform her that he has carried out her ‘order’ to receive us. Our chaperone, the minister’s assistant, assures us her boss will not be asleep yet.
Amidst handshakes and kisses and jokes, we gradually make it to the door and return to our long- suffering chauffeur. Tomorrow we’ll be hearing how activists in the barrios see the democratic vacuum separating the two driving forces of the Venezuelan revolution.
Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.