Chavez con­sol­i­dates con­trol over mil­i­tary

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Martin Arostegui

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.”

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