The militarisation of everyday life in Venezuela

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Rafael Uzcátegui

The recently-deceased President Hugo Chavez systematically militarised Venezuelan society, from young to old. This is perhaps not too surprising when recalling that he came to power as Lieutenant Colonel Chavez in 1998, after leading a coup d’etat in 1992. It was the first time during the democratic period, which began in 1958, that a member of the armed forces was chosen as the country’s leader. Since that time there has been a progressive militarisation of the country, with a special emphasis on young people.

This article considers the concept of militarisation in a broad sense, not just as the physical presence of soldiers in the daily life of the population. Militarisation is the spreading of and granting privilege to the values, symbols, language and ways of thinking and acting used by the armed forces within society, in order to guarantee the government’s ability to govern.

Starting them young

In 1981 'pre-military instruction' was added as an optional subject to the curriculum of the last two years of secondary education in public schools, prior to university. It became mandatory in both public and private education in 1999. Theoretical classes about the origins of the state and the nation from a military perspective are mixed with practical military drill, exercises in survival and military confrontation, such as describing the weapons used by the military. Sometimes putting together and dismantling a pistol can also be part of the course. One part gives an historical overview of the establishment of Venezuela as a country that has won successive military victories against different empires, i.e. history told from a military perspective, whilst another part gives classes about human rights...

The Bolivarian government has created new higher education institutions, such as the Bolivian University of Venezuela (UBE) and the National University of the Arts (UNEARTE) and their disciplinary rules look more like those of a barracks than a university. At UBE student unions are prohibited, while at UNEARTE much behaviour is classified as lack of respect for authority and punished with expulsion.

An old university exclusively for the military today forms part of the system of public universities: the National Experimental Polytechnic University of theArmed Forces (UNEFA), where enrolment has grown significantly since 2004, from 2,500 students to 230,000. The students receive a militarised education with different rituals, which are more appropriate on a military base, such as singing the national anthem before classes. UNEFA prides itself on actively contributing to the training of the National Bolivarian Military, a civil component of the Armed Forces created by Chavez’s administration. According to official figures, this 'civilian' military is made up of 13,000 men and women from all over the country. University authorities claim that students join the military voluntarily, but it is not clear if they can graduate if they refuse to participate.

The Bolivarian National Military uses article 326 of the Constitution as a presumed source of legitimacy. This article talks of the 'principle joint responsibility of citizens in the integral defence of the nation.' Up until now, this interpretation has created three types of civil-military undertakings: the Territorial Military, the military reserve, and the combatant corps. The difference between the military and the combatant corps is that the latter, according to the Partial Reform of the Statutory law of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, approved in 2009, must be organised in public and private companies, 'to ensure the integrity and operation of the institutions where they came from.' President Chavez’s government programme of 2013-2019 promised in point 1.1.3.3 'to expand the organisation of towns for the integral defence of the country', which portends the continual, profound militarisation of society.

The combatant corps don’t have anything to do with the educative model driven by the so-called 'Bolivarian revolution': spokespersons from institutions such as the Romula Gallegos University (Unerg), Simon Rodrigues University (USR) and the National Open University (UNA) - old institutions of superior education but which are now openly controlled by the government - have affirmed their commitment to organise them [the corps] from the inside, with their workers. A similar commitment with the reinforcement of the military can also be found in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV). Publicity designed to attract young people to join the reserves can be found in universities. The student movement that supported president Chávez was very supportive of this, setting up their own units. Until now there has not been a clear, natural link between education institutions and the military, and the initiatives are isolated efforts with little coordination between each other. Nevertheless, evidence shows a desire to advance towards greater coordination, creating institutionality for the 'integral defence' of the nation which has the education system as one of its components.

Another military initiative has been the creation, by the State, of so-called 'communicational guerilla commandos' which, paradoxically, came from the female leader of government of the Capital District, Jacqueline Faría, in April 2010. The project was to involve units of 25 young students with an average education to face what the government calls the 'communicational supremacy' of private media. The adolescents swore an oath in front of patriotic symbols, dressed in the military style of Latin American guerrillas from the 1960’s, and were supplied with different tools to make street murals. However, this initiative did not prosper: different human rights and social organisations questioned its legitimisation of armed violence.

Another example of militarism meddling with young Venezuelan minds is the use of symbolic elements which suggest that the vertical and authoritarian model represented by the Armed Forces is the most efficient model for organising one’s life in society. Despite the civil vote of confidence in him, President Chavez became accustomed to attending official ceremonies in military uniform. The red beret, used by leaders of coup d’états and by Chavez himself, during February 1992, formed an important part of Bolivarian dress. The Paseo de Los Proceres in Caracas - a military infrastructure inaugurated in 1956 by the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez - remains a privileged site for its military marches as well as its public demonstrations in support of the government, for example, the inaugural march of the 6th Global Social Forum, which took place there in January 2006.

Not just the youth: History, violence, and space

The militarisation of youth in Venezuela is part of the general militarisation of the country and therefore needs to be put into context. Following the general tendency of Latin American countries, Venezuela is a country whose history is a succession of wars and military heroes. Of these heroes, Simon Bolivar is the towering figure, having won independence from Spain for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Four years after his death in 1830, the Venezuelan Congress began to institutionalise homage to him, honouring him with the title The Liberator. In 1880, President Guzman Blanco named the Venezuelan currency as Bolivar and ordered statues of him to be put up in every city’s main square. Today, all Venezuelan cities and towns have a statue or bust of Bolivar in their centres. He was said to have a ‘warlike’ or ‘warrior’s’ masculinity and is the model for Venezuelan men, with emphasis on maleness, valour, and patriotism. Venezuelan masculinity is a projection of the figure of Bolívar. Chávez reinforced this: despite being a 'civilian' president he always carried out public acts in military dress and in all his analysis and description of political conflict he employed military metaphors. Public functionaries and his supporters called him Commander-President, public bodies were given names such as Organisation of Electoral Battle, and Combatant Corps, and the majority of slogans contained military allusions, such as 'Order over this front'.

Throughout Latin America, Bolivar’s figure and thoughts have been used to give legitimacy to political movements from both the Left and the Right. Juan Vicente Gomez’s dictatorship in Venezuela between 1908 and 1935 was an active promoter of paying homage to Simon Bolivar’s persona. People wrongly believe that the current Venezuelan army descends from Simon Bolivar’s liberation army, but Bolívar’s army only lasted until 1870; it wasn’t until the 1930s that the modern Venezuelan army was created, by Gómez. From 1958 onwards, the different democratic governments called upon the Bolivarian legend in different ways. Chavez did the same. His insurrectionist movement after 1992 was called The Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200. After rising to power in 1998 through the democratic route, the new government changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chavez's own political movement is called the Bolivarian Revolution.

A new Constitution was written in 1999. One of the changes was the inclusion for the first time of military personnel’s right to vote. It also granted them other political rights, such the right to be elected to public office. Today, soldiers are ministers, governors and mayors. Although there is a coalition of political parties that supported President Chavez - the Great Patriotic Pole - there is a lot of evidence that, in fact, the Armed Forces are Hugo Chavez’s political organisation, trusted with exercising political power. We can see an example of this in the governor’s elections on 16 December 2012, where the United Socialists Party of Venezuela (PSUV) nominated candidates to twenty-three state governments of the country, twelve of whom were in the military. Of these, eleven were elected.

In Venezuela there is a primacy of violence – symbolic or real – as a means of resolving conflicts. Victory is understood as the elimination or humiliation of the other. Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the region. Historically, management posts within the country’s police force are given to military personnel, and the police use military weaponry. Security operations, including the recent ‘Bicentennial Security Plan’, count heavily on the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), which is one of the four components making up the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). Between 1997 and 2011, according to figures from the human rights charity Provea, the Armed Forces – especially the GNB - were responsible for 301 cases regarding the violation of the right to live. The human rights coalition ‘Foro por la Vida’ (Forum For Life) has demanded of the government to ‘guarantee that, except for in exceptional circumstances, the Armed Forces do not participate in civil security activities.’ The GNB is also in charge of guarding the country’s prisons, where according to data in 2011 from the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), there were 560 deaths and 1,457 injuries in the country’s 35 prisons. The GNB is accused of controlling the weapons and drugs traffic in the prisons.

The serious violence in Venezuela has been categorised as a ‘low intensity war’ by different experts. Keeping oneself ‘safe’ has engendered an important change in habits and customs. These include, among others; recreation, cultural activities and the loss of public areas in the country’s main cities. In the city centre of the country’s capital, Caracas, commercial activities stop at 6pm for security reasons, and in other main cities public transport services are progressively limited. People stay in their homes at night. Young people tend to gather in large shopping centres.

Another aspect of the militarisation of young people is the strategies rolled out to control social conflicts, which reproduce the Armed Forces’ own war logic. Since 2002, after the approval of the Constitutional Law of National Security, 'security zones' were created in Venezuela: 'spaces (…) subject to special regulation.' According to the law, security zones are:

  • the shores, lakes, islands and navigable rivers
  • oil and gas pipelines, aqueducts and main electricity lines
  • areas surrounding military and public facilities, basic and strategic industries, and essential services
  • the airspace above military facilities, basic and strategic industries, and essential services
  • the most important adjacent areas of air, ground and water communication channels
  • any other security zone considered necessary for the nation’s security and defence.

According to calculations by the charity Control Ciudadano (Citizen Control), almost 30% of Venezuela would be considered a security zone. According to article 56 of the law, 'Anyone who organises, supports or instigates the carrying out of activities within security zones which are intended to disturb or affect the organisation and functioning of military facilities, public services, industries and basic companies, or the socio-economic life of the country, will be punished with a 5-10 year prison sentence.' The supposed crime of ‘violation of security zones’ is commonly used to criminalise popular social leaders for staging peaceful protests in the country. In 2011 the human rights charity Provea condemned the existence of 2,400 cases of people brought to court for participating in a protest. Most of these people were young rural leaders, union members, or students. However, the security zones law is not the only means of territorial control of political rights. Multiple areas and spaces of the country are considered 'Bolivarian territory' where activities and the expression of any other political views are prohibited. In 1999 in Bolivar state, a frontier state bordering on Brazil, the Pemón people brought down twelve electrical pylons that were part of a power line project between Venezuela and Brazil that passed through indigenous territories in Venezuela. As a result the area was militarised through the presence of the armed forces and the landmines that they planted around other electrical pylons to prevent them being brought down.

Several urban and rural paramilitary organisations in the country support the government and have young people among their members. Human rights organisations have denounced Colombian groups such as the FARC and ELN, and the Venezuelan Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (FBL), for practising the forced recruitment of adolescents at the Venezuelan border. The Constitution of 1999 recognises the right to conscientious objection in an ambiguous way. Because of the lack of employment and other opportunities, military service constitutes a source of employment and social ascent for young people from the poorer sectors of society. According to the budget for the Armed Forces, they will receive 156 times more money than they can earn as particants on the Ministry of Youth programmes, which are aimed at benefitting young people in Venezuela.

Translated from the original Spanish by Paul Rankin

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