After Chavez: Venezuela should dismantle its military

After decades of waste, misery, and violence Venezuela is ready for bold leadership. Could this involve following in Costa Rica's footsteps and disbanding its armed forces?

Does Venezuela need military forces?
Joel D. Hirst
On 1 May 2012 14:50

Throughout its history, Venezuela has spent an inordinate amount of time under military rule; the list of Venezuelan presidents reads more like the faculty of a war academy. Over the last century the country’s geopolitical landscape has been dominated and controlled by three powerful military men: General Juan Vicente Gomez, Lieutenant Colonel Marco Perez Jimenez and Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias. 

In fact, except perhaps during the thirty-odd years of peace brokered by the Punto Fijo pact, Venezuela’s political history has been one of conflict, coups, strife and violence: mostly at the hands of the military.

None of these has been more damaging than the fourteen year rule of Colonel Hugo Chavez. His disastrous tenure as President has witnessed the renewed militarization of the country. Colonel Chavez has purchased more than $15 billion in new weapons; and the budget for the fielding and upkeep of between 250,000 and 350,000 soldiers reached $4.5 billion in 2012. 

Even more concerning are the reserves, a Para-Military organization reporting directly to Chavez and tasked with defending the revolution whose numbers could be as high as 700,000. Couple this with the 2005 modification of Venezuela’s war doctrine to include asymmetric warfare – which violates Venezuela’s treaty obligations – and a serious picture emerges. 

Finally, more recently, reports of Venezuelan military involvement in drug running paint a picture of an even darker underbelly of the role of Venezuela’s military in national life.

Some context is necessary. Since its independence, and especially since its entry into modernity, Venezuela has not been threatened by invasion from outside forces. Its military, bored and underpaid, has instead conspired time and again to alter Venezuela’s constitutional regime. President Chavez himself attempted the violent overthrow of the government, twice, before realizing he could achieve his radical authoritarian agenda through the electoral process.

Without any real external threat, and with no logical role for the Venezuelan military, Venezuela’s next president should demilitarize the country

Naturally, this process must be done gradually over the next six year presidential period. It also must be accompanied with significant economic reforms. The first phase is the immediate dismantling of the militia. This organization is un-necessary and is at least partly comprised of a radical criminal element. This dismantling could be done through a DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) campaign with support from the United Nations, World Bank and others who have expertise in this field. The weapons distributed freely by the Chavez government must be recuperated and publicly destroyed. Those unwilling to disarm would be considered criminal gangs, and treated accordingly.

Second, the active duty military must be disbanded. Those of sufficient retirement age should be retired – respecting their full pensions and privileges. For those who have not attained retirement age there are two options. 

The most committed and successful of the soldiers should be re-organized into a Civilian Defense Force, under the jurisdiction of Venezuelan civil legal code and under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. The size and strength of this force would depend on a threat analysis by the security services and Interior Ministry; but should be sufficient to safeguard Venezuela’s borders and overwhelm Venezuela’s only real threat, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The navy should be re-organized into a coast guard meant to address the problems of piracy and drug running that have plagued Venezuela’s unguarded coasts.  

The remainder of the soldiers could be re-trained and incorporated into the police force, or offered training for an activity of their choice in civilian life. Those involved in running drugs should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Finally, a constitutional referendum will be needed to legally abolish the armed forces.

Such a bold act is not unprecedented in Latin American history. On December 1st, 1948 exhausted at the instability and violence brought about by an unnecessary army, Costa Rican President Jose Figueres abolished that country’s military. The resulting culture of peace and reinvestment into the education sector has seen a the tiny Central American nation rocket to the top of human development in Latin America; paralleling Chile in per capita income and other indices of wellbeing.

And like Costa Rica, in the extremely unlikely event that Venezuela was to see its territorial integrity threatened they could invoke the Inter-American Treaty on Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Treaty) and demand the aid of other OAS member states. This treaty has kept Costa Rica safe, even during the complicated Central American wars of the 1980s; there is no reason to believe it would not do the same for Venezuela.

After decades of waste, misery, and violence Venezuela is ready for bold leadership. This leadership must embrace daring solutions which will at long last permanently alter the geopolitical landscape of the country and assure that never again will a conspiring Colonel or a discontented General drive that country to dictatorship. More than ever, Venezuela needs a time of peace and prosperity.

Joel D. Hirst is a Principal at the Cordoba Group Interational, a strategic consulting and management firm in Washington D.C. Hirst has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and is an expert in democracy, foreign policy and governance. Hirst tweets @joelhirst

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