Chavez consolidates control over military
SANTACRUZ,Bolivia—Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has moved to tighten his control over his nation’s armed forces, which he has equipped with the most powerful arsenal in the region, according to military officials and defense analysts.
Inacommandreshufflelastmonth, Mr. Chavez replaced his defense minister, Gen. Raul Baduel, with Gen. Gustavo Rangel, who previously commanded a 100,000-strong militia established by Mr. Chavez to protect his regime and resist any U.S. invasion.
Gen. Baduel had criticized Mr. Chavez’s rule as unnecessarily authoritarian. “A socialist regime is not incompatible with a democratic system of checks and balances and division of powers. We must separate ourselves from Marxist orthodoxy,” he said in a farewell speech.
The outgoing minister had been credited with saving Mr. Chavez’s government in 2002 when, as commander of an elite armored unit, he refused to support other senior officers who briefly toppled the government.
Another recently retired general, Muller Rojas, believes Gen. Baduel’s resignation signals a purge of the high command,whichhesayshasbecome “highly politicized and partisan.”
The new defense chief, Gen. Rangel, underwent military instruction in Cuba and is expected to merge the regular army with politically directed militias armed with new AK103 rifles purchased from Russia.
“By naming Rangel, Chavez imposes his military thesis on the high command. The president conceives of a tactical doctrine combining professional armed forces and militias, which are the basis of the asymmetrical warfare strategy of the people in arms,” said Venezuelan defense analyst Alberto Garrido.
Addressing a group of graduating cadets last month, Mr. Chavez told them: “We are taking the model of the war of resistance, which is the people with the soldiers of our armed forces preparing for the defense of the nation.” The newly minted officers were required to swear to the slogan “Socialism or death” at the commencement ceremony.
Military officials in several South American countries have expressed concern about the unmatched air power Mr. Chavez has acquired with a new fleet of 24 Sukhoi Su-30s purchased in a $3.5 billion arms deal with Russia last year.
According to a Colombian air force general, the high performance Sukhois are technologically superior to any other combat aircraft in Latin America.
An estimated flight range of 1,600 miles puts the Sukhoi within striking range of almost every country in the hemisphere, reaching as far north as Washington.
With a potential payload of 10 tons, it can launch Russian-made Brahmos cruise missiles, which are equivalent to the U.S. Tomahawk.
According to a European diplomat in Caracas, Venezuelan air commanders have said that they need the Sukhois to “defend” the Panama Canal — even though the canal is owned and operated by Panama.
Russia sold the Sukhois to Venezuela with a “full suite” of overthe-horizon and anti-radar capabilities, allowing the aircraft to conduct sophisticated air battles. The only country in South America capable of countering them is Chile, which recently bought 12 American F-16 Falcons.
In a trip to Russia last month, Mr. Chavez reportedly negotiated new deals for nine 636 and 677E Amurclass diesel-powered submarines, which also carry medium-range missiles. The purchase gives Mr. Chavez the region’s largest navy.
Mr. Chavez has said Venezuela needs the submarines to protect offshore oil installations and counter any U.S. blockade.
Gen. Baduel has said Venezuela is also involved in arms projects with Iran, including the joint development of remote-controlled drone aircraft for “armed reconnaissance.”