Venezuela’s Weekend Warriors

Much confusion surrounds the Venezuelan military reserves, partly because of the controversy they cause. For the government, they are a critical part of the Venezuelan process because of the role they play in deterring, or in the worst case fighting, a war of invasion by the US.

By Alexander Holland - Venezuelanalysis.com
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New recruits for the reserves report to duty from the Caracas barrio 23 d'enero.
Credit: Alexander Holland

There is a stereotypical image of a guerrilla training camp in Latin America. It is a base in remote mountains or jungle. In this base, idealistic civilians do target practice with machine guns and hide from government forces. The government is the enemy of this camp and the guerrillas train to overthrow it.

In Venezuela today there are dozens of guerilla training camps. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers go to them. They are not training to destroy the government. They are training to defend it. They are called the Military Reserves. They are one of the most controversial policies of a government famous for controversial policies.

One of these camps is located in the middle of one of Caracas’s most famous barrios, or slums, called 23 d’enero. It is a strange sight inside a former military museum, built in the style of an old Spanish castle. This fairy tale fort is on top of a hill overlooking slums and tower blocks.

When the volunteers inside this base are asked why they are there, they all give the same answer. From the 16 year old girl to the 60 year old man they say, “I am here to defend the country.”

A new recruit and her officer.
Credit: Alexander Holland

Invasion

Who are the Reserves supposed to defend Venezuela against? For President Hugo Chavez there is only one answer. In January 2006 Chavez said, “The only war possible for us would be the one that we are obliged to make against an invasion by North American imperialism.”

The Americans have robustly denied this claim. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield has said, “The United States has never invaded, is not invading at this moment, and will never invade Venezuela. Period.” However Brownfield’s soothing words are often at odds with the US State Department and the Pentagon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said Chavez is, “like Hitler.” His counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Venezuela is, “the biggest problem,” for democracy in the western hemisphere. Rice went on to say a, “united front” was needed to isolate Venezuela.

The desire in Washington for regime change in Venezuela is not normally questioned. Most people who play down the possibility of a U.S. invasion point to how American military force is tied down in Iraq. This situation could obviously change with a U.S. troop withdrawal.

In the next few years, when more U.S. forces become available, the debate over a possible invasion of Venezuela could become less academic. The Chavez government does not want to wait until the U.S. is ready to attack before preparing its defense. To this end it is building up the Military Reserves.

Venezuela's military reserves in formation for their training.
Credit: Alexander Holland

War for the 21st Century

Alberto Garrido is a Venezuelan Military analyst and commentator for the opposition newspaper El Universal. Garrido says the Chavez government is investing in the Reserves as the best means to deter a US attack on Venezuela.

Trying to resist potential aggressors like the U.S. with regular armed forces is pointless, says Garrido. Trained, motivated civilians, with small arms who can hide in the population are the best way to counter the vast military power of the U.S.

The Reserves themselves are not an invention of the current government. Made up of civilian volunteers, the previous Reserves were supposed to act as replacement manpower for the navy, army, and air force in case of losses from a war.

The second in command of today’s Military Reserves is General Mario Arvalaez Rengifo. Arvalaez said in the past the Reserves were not a serious organization. Until 1998 there were only about 15,000 Reservists on paper and less in reality.

This changed with Chavez. More funding was provided for the Reserves and an effort was made to expand them. In 2005 their structure and training changed as part of a general military reform. The Reserves were no longer to act as a support to the other armed forces. They became their own force under a single command.

Civilians who volunteer for the Reserves train every weekend for 6 months. They learn about basic military and guerrilla theory. They also take courses on human rights and military law.

Other training includes how to operate as a unit and as individuals, as well as a period when they specialize in a certain type of weapon such as a sniper rifle. A small part of the training includes firing assault rifles and military exercise with live ammunition.

Those who pass this training become part of the active Reserve. They form units in their local areas. The Reservists practice there to become familiar with the environment from a tactical point of view.

1 Million under Arms

By 2003, 15,000 people had gone through this training and the Reserves had doubled in number to 30,000. More have followed them. According to Arvalaez there are currently 100,000 people in the Reserves. Another 90,000 are now in training and should join in a few months.

In speeches Chavez has said there should eventually be 1 million to 2 million in the Reserves. Some have speculated that with forces this large the Reserves might not be purely defensive.

Arvalaez stressed the Venezuelan constitution does not allow for the Reserves to be used for anything else than defense of national territory. The General also pointed out that Venezuela has good relations with both its neighbors. Even if these points were ignored Venezuela threatening others with its Reserves looks unlikely.

Even with 2 million Reservists, Venezuela would be foolish to attack Brazil or Colombia. The experience, training and firepower of the two largest and most professional militaries in the region could not easily be overcome with sheer numbers.

National defense is the main task of the Reserves but it is not there only task, said Arvalaez. Once they have finished their training, “About 80% of the work of the Reserves is social, and 20% military,” said Arvalaez.

The General said, “We’re not only talking about war here, but about social inclusion. About deepening the sense of patriotism in the people.” The Reservists help assist with the popular social missions, almost like community volunteers.

The logic goes that by doing this they will gain the support of these communities. In a time of war the Reservists would depend on the sympathy of the people to operate successfully, said Arvalaez.

This all relates to the Chavez government’s promotion of a “Civil-Military union.” This is supposed to be a two-way relationship between the military and the civilian population. Civilians help the military with national defense and the military helps civilians with national development.

Defending Who?

Critics of the Reserves, such as opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, have said that the Reserves have a more sinister purpose than development. Petkoff says they are a cover for fanatical Chavez supporters to control the population.

A former Marxist guerrilla himself, Petkoff highlights how the Reserves are under the command of the President. Petkoff says this means they act as his personal guard and are meant to put down protest.

Garrido says this reaction to the Reserves is hysterical. There are, “some people in the opposition who are so willing to see bad things that they are blind to the reality,” said Garrido. The anti-Chavez military analyst said, “The reserves are not there to kill the opposition.”

The Reserves might fight against the military if it tried to do a coup against Chavez, said Garrido. However the military analyst thinks it is very unlikely the army would try a coup as it is largely loyal to the government. Garrido stressed the Reserves more than anything, “are part of the government’s external defense strategy.”

Loyalty

The Commander of the Reserves in 23 d’enero is Lieutenant Colonel Pablo Cabarga Mota. The commander responds to claims the Reserves are the armed part of the pro-Chavez parties by saying it impossible to know who the Reservists support.

Mota said nobody is allowed to demonstrate a political position in the Reserves, “Not for government parties or the opposition. It’s forbidden. People aren’t asked who they vote for.”

They have to, “swear in front of the flag and God, to protect the constitution and the institutions it sets down,” said Mota. The Reservist make this oath, “to the constitution, Not one man,” said the Commander.

Mota claimed in this way it is not much different from the Venezuelan regular army. Both are ultimately under the authority of the President. The head of state gives orders to these forces through the generals commanding them.

It is up to those generals, soldiers, and Reservists to decide if the orders they are receiving break their oath to the constitution and should be obeyed or not.

Motivation

Despite there being no politics allowed in the Reserves, Mota believes the vast majority of those who volunteer support the process of change in Venezuela. Mota said this was because the volunteers are almost entirely from the barrios.

In these very poor areas the welfare schemes of the government have been very popular. Because so many of the people who volunteer for the Reserves are from the poorest sections of society some have said that the main reason they take part is for money.

Those learning to be Reservists get about $7 for each full day of training they do. This is the same as one day of the minimum wage. The people doing Reserves training in 23 d’enero denied they were doing it for the money.

Carla Bandes, a street vendor, said she could make more money working at her stall, “and be near my children while I was doing it.” She was not doing it for the money she said, “I’m doing it because I believe in it.”

The other Reservists around her agreed. In his late 60’s, former army sergeant Longobaldo Velasquez said he could be spending his weekends playing with his grandchildren instead of training to fight a guerrilla war. Velasquez said it was important for his grandchildren’s future that he volunteer for them.

During his lifetime, the Americans had gone to Chile and Nicarauga to destroy democracy, Velasquez said. The Venezuelan said, “I don’t want that to happen here. I want my grandchildren to grow up free with opportunities. That’s why I’m willing to defend my country.”

Despite his age, Velasquez still felt he had something to offer. Every Venezuelan, “from the young to the old, has capabilities. If they invade we will resist with all the capabilities we have, with guns, bombs, machetes, our hands – everything.”

Prepared To Kill

Some of the other Reservists were less enthusiastic than Velasquez about the idea of killing. Electrician, Leomar Salazar said, “I am not willing to kill someone. I would look for a way to neutralise the enemy without taking their life. Our mission is to preserve life, even the enemy’s.”

That some Reservists have an aversion to killing would not make the Reserves as a whole useless as a deterrent, Mota believes. The Commander admitted their training was not as thorough as it might be at the School of the Americas, the U.S.-run military academy that has trained Latin American officers.

Mota said the School of the Americas made people into soulless killing machines. Instead of this, the Reservists are taught, “to love the heroes of the war of independence and to want to fight like them. We aren’t filling them with hate,” said Mota.

The Second in Command of the Reserves said, “People say Venezuelans would not be able to resist the U.S. because we are not Muslims. Courage and determination don’t only belong to Muslims. If we are tested we will show them.”

Only time will tell if the Reserves are an effective deterrent to those considering invading Venezuela. For the moment it is certain that they will remain one of the most controversial parts of the Venezuelan process and maybe one of its most vital.