The most lasting impact of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez's self-proclaimed revolution may not be his incendiary speeches against U.S. "imperialism" nor his daily praise for the Cuban dictatorship, but something that has drawn much less attention -- the politicization of Venezuela's armed forces.
On Tuesday, at the swearing-in ceremony of his new defense minister, Orlando Maniglia, Chavez proclaimed that Venezuela's armed forces are "anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist," and thus opposed to U.S. policies in the region. "The Venezuelan armed forces are at the heart of the revolution -- alongside the people," he added.
At another ceremony days earlier, in which he decorated 96 Cuban "internationalist" teachers, Chavez stated that "The Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions are already one and only," and will defend one another against a potential U.S. invasion, the daily El Universal and the Reuters news agency reported Saturday. U.S. officials deny any plans to attack Venezuela, and say the idea exists only in Chavez's mind.
While Chavez's increasingly belligerent rhetoric is nothing new -- in fact, his revolutionary fervor seems to be directly proportional to the price of oil, which has risen from $9 per barrel when he took office in 1999 to $61 today -- he is taking dramatic steps to restructure the Vene-zuelan armed forces, which may haunt what is left of Venezuela's democracy for decades to come.
"People don't take him seriously, but he has been doing everything he said he would do," says Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan writer specializing in military affairs. "Chavez has tried to give this process a folkloric connotation, but it isn't folkloric at all."
Consider the most recent developments:
UOn July 5, on Venezuela's Independence Day, Chavez announced creation of a "Territorial Guard," a force that will be made up of armed civilians fighting clandestinely who will report directly to the president. Pro-Chavez legislator Nestor Leon Heredia was quoted by the Venezuelan press as saying that the new force is modeled after the Iraqi resistance.
ULast month, Chavez announced expansion of the military reserve, currently up to 100,000 civilians, to 500,000 civilians in the short run and eventually to 2 million people. The military reserve reports directly to Chavez. Armed forces commander Armando Laguna has said the Navy conducted its first military exercise with civilians June 15.
UChavez has resumed wearing a military uniform after nearly three years. He had ended the practice at the request of his former high command, who had asked him to don civilian clothes after a 2002 aborted coup. Those generals have since been retired.
UChavez has recently changed the armed forces' traditional camouflaged uniform to adopt a Chinese-style one-color garment. He has incorporated the red beret -- the trademark of a 1992 coup attempt he led -- in elite units.
USimultaneously, Chavez has purchased 15 Russian attack helicopters, more than 100,000 Russian AK-103 rifles, 10 troop transport aircraft and eight navy patrol boats from Spain, and 24 Super Tucano light attack planes from Brazil. Venezuela is also reportedly negotiating the purchase of up to 50 Russian-made MiG-29 planes.
Garrido says Venezuela is embarked on a continental revolutionary project, shared with Cuba.
"Under this new military doctrine, the traditional armed forces no longer have the monopoly of the right to wear weapons. Instead, that monopoly is shared by three different levels: the traditional armed forces, the civilian reserve and the armed citizens' Territorial Guard," he said.
While Garrido thinks Chavez may have reasons to believe that a U.S. attack may be coming, most Venezuelan and U.S. critics of Chavez say his motives are totally different: creating a police state.
"The Territorial Guard is being created as a death squad, a terrorist and killing apparatus, covered up by the impunity it would get from its direct dependence from the head of state," said Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, one of the few remaining opposition state governors.
My conclusion: If Chavez means to do half of what he says, his transformation of Venezuela's armed forces -- and distribution of weapons to civilians -- will haunt Venezuela for decades to come, no matter how long he stays in power or who succeeds him.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.