Chavez taps hardline generals for inner circle

January 27, 2012 - 3:25 PM
Venezuela Chavez Military

FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2012 file photo, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, second left,his incoming Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel, left, and his outgoing Defense Minister Gen. Carlos Mata, third left, attend Rangel's swearing-in ceremony at the Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela. Chavez has been stocking the top of Venezuela's armed forces with some of his closest allies, raising concern among opponents that the military leaders might not accept this year's election if it goes against him. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez has been filling top posts in Venezuela's armed forces with hardline political loyalists, raising concerns among critics that the military leaders might not accept the results of this year's election if it goes against him.

The man named defense minister this month, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, has been the bluntest: "A hypothetical opposition government starting in 2012 would be selling out the country; the Armed Force is not going to accept that," he told a Venezuelan newspaper in 2010.

Rangel had joined Chavez in a 1992 attempt to overthrow the president of the time, as did Chavez's newly appointed Military Aviation commander, Gen. Jose Gregorio Perez Escalona. The new head of another key military branch, the National Guard, also is tightly tied to the leftist leader.

"With this maneuver, Chavez aims to consolidate loyalties within his most radical sector," said Rocio San Miguel, leader of the watchdog organization Citizen Control, which focuses on national security and defense issues.

She said Rangel's appointment seems aimed at intimidating opponents by "making it look like the most radical sector has the firepower, has the weapons of the republic and accompanies (Chavez) with absolute loyalty."

The changes in the military leadership emphasize a long-term commitment to Chavez's socialist-inspired policies at a time when some Venezuelans are wondering whether the president has fully beaten cancer, as he says he has. Chavez says tests have shown he is cancer-free following chemotherapy treatments last year.

As Chavez starts campaigning for the Oct. 7 election, a politicized military leadership allows him to reward his most loyal backers while also projecting an image of strength.

Chavez, who according to recent polls has approval ratings above 50 percent, has assured opponents he would hand over the presidency if defeated.

Yet opposition leaders have been alarmed by the open political allegiance of the newly appointed generals, and especially Rangel's outspoken support of Chavez's political movement. The opposition has urged Rangel to abide by the military's traditionally apolitical role.

The U.S. government has also accused Rangel of having ties to leftist Colombian rebels and aiding drug trafficking.

"They don't have a single bit of proof," Chavez said at Rangel's swearing-in last week, calling the accusations against him an attack on the military.

During his 13 years in office, Chavez has long promoted trusted officers and has increasingly sought to put his political stamp on the military command. Chavez survived a failed 2002 coup in which dissident military officers were involved, and has since tried to ensure tighter control.

Chavez also instituted a new official salute, "Socialist fatherland or death," which he later changed during his cancer struggle to "Independence and socialist fatherland."

Some former military officers have complained of being pushed aside and stripped of duties due to their dissent.

This month's reshuffling emphasized generals with whom Chavez has especially strong ties.

Rangel, a former chief of the country's civilian intelligence agency, participated in the failed 1992 coup led by Chavez, who was then a lieutenant colonel.

Perez Escalona, Chavez's newly appointed Military Aviation chief, also was involved in the 1992 coup, as was Gen. Euclides Amador Campos Aponte, whom Chavez appointed army chief in 2010.

The new commander of the National Guard, Gen. Juan Francisco Romero Figueroa, is a former deputy minister for citizen security who has been involved in operations to disperse opposition protests.

Last month, Chavez replaced his longtime chief of the military intelligence agency, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, choosing Gen. Wilfredo Figueroa Chacin, who had been in charge of presidential security.

San Miguel said that while the new military commanders are staunchly pro-Chavez, the bulk of the military remains apolitical and would likely favor respecting the electoral result, even if it goes against Chavez.

If the opposition were to win by a narrow margin, she said, "it could happen that this apex of the military high command leans toward the status quo, that's to say Chavez staying in power, all of which opens the floodgates to very dangerous situations."

As the campaign heats up ahead of a Feb. 12 opposition primary, Chavez's challengers have denounced the political slant in Chavez's military appointments.

"What these actions are intended to do is generate fear," opposition contender Maria Corina Machado said.

The president has stood by Rangel through a series of controversies.

In 2007, when scandal erupted over the discovery of a suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash being smuggled from Venezuela to Argentina, witnesses testified in U.S. court that Rangel had been involved in an attempted cover-up.

In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Rangel and two other members of Chavez's inner circle of helping leftist Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug trafficking operations.

Rangel's name again surfaced in documents found on computers belonging to Raul Reyes, a leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who was killed in a 2008 Colombian bombardment of a rebel camp.

One 2007 message between the rebels, which was among files released last year, described Rangel as a "good friend" of the rebel commander Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez, who has since been named the rebels' chief. Chavez has suggested he believes the documents are politically motivated fabrications.

Chavez's ally and mentor Fidel Castro has also defended Rangel, saying in an essay published Thursday that the general is "an intelligent and sincere man, capable and at the same time modest."

The changes in military leadership have coincided with other unexpected announcements by Chavez. He said that Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Vice President Elias Jaua will be candidates for state governors, appearing to relegate them to less-powerful roles.

Meanwhile, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and vice president, took over earlier this month as the new National Assembly president. Chavez said Cabello had been named due to support within his socialist party.

As for the newly promoted generals, Chavez says they lead a military that is becoming progressively "more revolutionary, socialist, committed."