Is the Venezuelan Military Eyeing a Power Grab?

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A former US diplomat claims that a group of high-ranking officials in the Venezuelan military are planning to declare martial law if President Hugo Chavez’s health deteriorates and causes instability in the country.

In an opinion column for Foreign Policy entitled “After Chavez, the Narcostate,” former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega paints an alarming picture of Venezuela’s political landscape. As well as claiming that Chavez’s health is extremely fragile, he alleges that a group of high-level military officers (a “revolutionary junta”) are waiting in the wings to take power if there are signs of unrest.

According to Noriega, “sources inside the presidential palace [claim that] Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chavez deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.”

He argues that General Rangel — who the US has accused of involvement in drug trafficking — and several other military leaders are behaving like a “de facto regime,” and would not recognize an opposition victory in the upcoming presidential elections in October.

InSight Crime Analysis

It is true that Venezuela’s military leadership has given worrying signals about their stance on the upcoming elections. In 2010 Rangel said that the military would not accept a change in government, but he has adopted a more conciliatory tone since being appointed defense minister in January. Earlier this month, the general declared, “We are going to recognize whoever wins the October 7 elections. We’re not just going to recognize whoever says they won.” This ambiguous statement suggests the military might dispute an opposition victory.

However, Noriega’s warnings should be taken with a grain of salt. So far there is no evidence that the military intends to seize power, and talk of succession has focused on figures in the civilian leadership. Noriega’s “inside sources” have not always provided the most reliable information in the past. In November, he claimed to have been told by a government insider that Chavez had less than six months left to live. Five months later, the president is still battling with cancer but appears to be far from his deathbed, making regular public appearances and energetically attacking his critics.

However, if the president’s health deteriorates, or if he loses the election, there is a high chance that Venezuela will become increasingly unstable, whether or not the military take control. This could allow organized crime to increase its hold on the country. One possible point of comparison is Honduras, which has become an increasingly important site for drug trafficking organizations since the 2009 coup.

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