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In Venezuela, military sours on president

By PHIL GUNSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be lucky to be alive.

A confessed member of a group of military conspirators admitted this week that they recently considered, but rejected, a plan to assassinate the former army lieutenant colonel. It was the latest and gravest sign that serious instability could be just around the corner for one of the world's major oil powers.

Voters go to the polls Sunday in an election the government intends will endorse the Chavez "revolution." In his first year in power after winning a landslide victory in December 1998, the president has carried out his promise of a radical overhaul of the constitution and virtually obliterated, at the national level, the traditional parties whose corruption and cronyism he blames for Venezuela's economic decline.

Opinion polls suggest he will easily win re-election to the presidency, along with a majority in the new, single-chamber legislature. His main opponent, Francisco Arias, is trailing by at least 11 points in opinion polls. But the country is deeply divided. Unemployment and crime have risen sharply and the economy shrank last year by 7.2 percent. Members of the middle class are leaving the country in droves, and there is evidence of widespread discontent among the armed forces.

Chavez "has sown the wind, and now he is reaping the whirlwind," said retired army Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich. In February 1992, when then-unknown paratroop commander Hugo Chavez led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the government of Carlos Andres Perez, Ochoa was the defense minister. Later appointed ambassador to Mexico, he resigned rather than serve under Chavez, whose coup attempt he says renders him unfit to be commander-in-chief.

The general belongs to a group of retired officers, from all branches of the armed forces, who claim to speak on behalf of active-service personnel opposed to Chavez's policies. In particular, they resent his attempts to enlist the armed forces in the service of the revolution.

The new constitution replaces the old description of the military as "apolitical, non-deliberative and obedient" with a more ambiguous wording that calls on them to refrain from "acts of propaganda . . . or political proselytizing." It also assigns them "active participation in national development."

One of Chavez's first acts as president was to bring the armed forces out of the barracks and put them to work in poor areas -- repainting schools, cleaning drains and running "popular markets." This so-called Plan Bolivar 2000, named after independence hero Simon Bolivar, has been hugely popular among the poor but has created deep resentment among many officers who see it as demeaning.

"Members of the armed forces are generally conservative," said Ochoa. "They take a great pride in their profession, and when they are obliged to do work like this . . . they don't feel it is being respected."

The president and the defense minister, Gen. Ismael Eliecer Hurtado, insist the military is "more united than ever." But in what may be end up to be an error in judgment, Chavez gave officers freedom to speak out in public.

"Active-service military personnel can go to the news media," the president said, "and speak about any irregularity of which they have knowledge." Within weeks, a national guard captain, Luis Garcia Morales, asked for an interview on TV station Globovision. In the interview, which the station never aired and sent instead to the defense minister, Garcia announced the formation of the "Venezuelan Patriotic Junta" and called on Chavez to resign.

The captain was arrested and dismissed from the national guard.

Garcia now admits that the group, whose other members apparently have not been detected, did consider a coup. Their sole objective, he says, is the removal of Chavez from the presidency.

"A comrade of ours, a sniper, said it would be easy to shoot him, and that would be the end of the problem," Garcia said. The junta debated the question, ultimately deciding that they would simply be creating a martyr and "chaos worse than that we are already experiencing."

Soon after news of the Garcia video was leaked, a senior air force officer, Col. Silvino Bustillos, went public with complaints of corruption in the armed forces. While his case was still being considered, he made an unprecedent live appearance on television -- in uniform, outside the offices of the electoral tribunal.

Claiming Chavez was making unconstitutional use of the national flag and other symbols in his election campaign, he called for his removal. Bustillos, who says he has no connection with the Patriotic Junta, was also expelled from the military.

The disciplinary measures contrast with promotions handed out to those expressing support for the revolution -- evidence, say critics, that the president is turning the armed forces into a political party.

Some observers question whether the military can maintain order during Sunday's elections when the opposition is branded "counter-revolutionary."

"I don't discount the possibility that there could be a violent outcome," said Ochoa, the retired general. "I am among those who feel the possibility is high."

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