Military radicalism in Venezuela: lessons for Philippines

Venezuela is undergoing, if not a revolution, a process of radical change, and the military is right in the center of it. How could this been happening, many skeptics ask, when the military, especially in Latin America, is usually an agent of the status quo? Others, less skeptical, ask: Is Venezuela the exception, or is it the wave of the future?

(Abridged from the original)

IN THE LIGHT of the obvious turmoil and discontent within the Armed Forces of the Philippines, many questions and concerns have been circulating. One very important issue is: Would military rebels merely serve as an instrument to get rid of a corrupt, illegitimate regime, or would they be capable of doing something more, that is, lead or be part of a coalition for progressive social transformation?

To get a grip on this question, it might be useful to look at the prime example of military radicalism today, the Venezuelan Army, and try to make some comparisons between its experience and that of the Philippine military.

‘An Army of the People’

That something interesting and unusual is taking place in Venezuela first really struck me when, in response to a sarcastic comment about an anti-war meeting of the 2006 World Social Forum taking place in an Air Force base, a member of the audience rose and, in the best pedagogical manner, told us foreigners, “Look, what we have here in Venezuela is not a regular army but an army of the people.”

Venezuela is undergoing, if not a revolution, a process of radical change, and the military is right in the center of it. How could this been happening, many skeptics ask, when the military, especially in Latin America, is usually an agent of the status quo? Others, less skeptical, ask: Is Venezuela the exception, or is it the wave of the future?

Many explanations have been advanced for the behavior of Venezuela’s military.

Edgardo Lander, a noted Venezuelan political scientist, says that one reason could be that compared to other Latin American armies, there is a much higher proportion of “people of humble origins in the Venezuelan officer corps.” Unlike in many other Latin American countries, he contends, “the upper classes have really looked at a military career with scorn here.”

Richard Gott, one of the leading authorities on the American left, adds another factor, the mingling of officers with civilians in the country’s educational system. “Beginning in the seventies, under a government program called the Andres Bello program, officers were sent to the universities in significant numbers, and there they rubbed elbows with other students studying, say, economics or political science.”

This “immersion” in civilian life had fateful consequences. One, the officers were exposed to progressive ideas at a time that “the left dominated the universities.” Two, it resulted in a deeper integration of the officer corps with civilian society than in most other countries in Latin America

Probably also critical, says Gott, was that for some reason Venezuela appears to have sent far fewer officers than many other Latin American countries to the US Army-run School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, which is the main conduit of counterinsurgency training to the western hemisphere’s military forces.

Now, these conditions may have contributed to making the Venezuelan Army less reactionary than others in Latin America, but they do not explain why it would be one of the spearheads of what is today the most radical social transformation taking place in the hemisphere. Gott, Lander, and other Venezuela specialists concur in one thing: the absolutely central role of Hugo Chavez.

With its central role in the Bolivarian Revolution, many observers are asking the question: is the military up to it?

For Chavez, according to political analyst Lander, the military is reliable because it is not corrupt and is more efficient than other institutions in delivering results. Lander questions this. “I don’t think there is anything inherent in the military that somehow makes it less susceptible to corruption than other institutions.” As for military efficiency, this is, he says, a half-truth: “Yes, the military may be effective when deployed to solve immediate problems like building schoolhouses or clinics staffed by Cuban doctors. But it is not a long-term solution. You need to institutionalize these solutions, and that’s where this revolution is weak. You have a proliferation of ad hoc solutions that remain ad hoc.”

Yet there is no doubt that in Chavez and his generation of officers there is a reforming zeal that will fuel the revolution for some time to come. It is a zeal borne out of a tremendous sense of frustration, one that Chavez expressed to Gott in an interview a few years ago: “Over many years the Venezuelan military were eunuchs: we were not allowed to speak; we had to look on in silence while we watched the disaster caused by corrupt and incompetent governments. Our senior officers were stealing, our troops were eating almost nothing, and we had to remain under tight discipline. But what kind of discipline is that? We were made complicit with the disaster.”

The Venezuelan and Philippine militaries: points of comparison

The sentiments expressed by Chavez in the preceding paragraph would probably resonate with many junior officers in the Philippine military. Which brings us to the question: What are the lessons of the Venezuelan experience for the Philippines? More specifically, are there possibilities for a similar left-leaning socially progressive military to emerge in this country?

If the Venezuelan experience is any guide, the odds are against it.

First of all, unlike the Venezuelan military, the Philippine military does not have a revolutionary nationalist heritage. It is not a direct descendant of the Katipuneros and the Army of the Philippine Revolution. It was formed by the US, initially to act an auxiliary force to support US occupation troops, then to maintain public order during the colonial period, and finally to back up US forces fighting the Japanese during the Second World War. Since the granting of independence in 1946, the Philippine Armed Forces have maintained very close links to the US military via aid and training programs.

Second, the Philippine military has not had the equivalent of an Andres Bello program, where officers were systematically immersed in the civilian educational system and consistently exposed not only to the latest technical and managerial concepts but also to progressive ideas and movements.

Third, in Venezuela, officers had an ambivalent relationship with the political left, on the one hand, fighting them as guerrillas, on the other hand, absorbing their ideas and proposals for change. In the Philippines, in contrast, the military sees the New People’s Army, with which it has been struggling for nearly 30 years, as its enemy unto death, both institutionally and ideologically. Not surprisingly, while groups like the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) or the Magdalo have periodically emerged, their programs have had little social and national content, their agenda being merely to seize power and put the military in command of society in order to purge civilian politics of corruption. Class analysis, imperialism, land reform — these are concepts that most officers see as belonging to the paradigm of a rival military force.

Finally, if there is a military that is so thoroughly permeated by the dominant social relationships of civilian society, it is the Philippine military. From top to bottom, the military is enmeshed in patron-client relationships with local and national elites. Competing civilian elites have cultivated and manipulated their factions within the military. Even military reform groups have often ended up in unhealthy relationships of dependency with traditional politicians and economic elites. The godfather relationship between the traditional politician Juan Ponce Enrile and the military rebel Gringo Honasan, for instance, was probably the key factor that stood in the way of RAM becoming a truly autonomous and progressive force.

But history is anything if not open. The Philippine military may still be capable of yielding surprises. After all, an observer of the Venezuelan military circa the late eighties would probably have wagered that with its cadre of corrupt senior officers tied to the US military, that institution would remain a faithful instrument of the status quo in the coming years.

Walden Bello is professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines in Diliman Quezon City, and executive director of the research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South based in Bangkok. He recently visited Venezuela.

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