Civil-military relations in Venezuela…by the pool
It is a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon in Caracas, Venezuela. In a pool club on the Western side of the city, families and friends are eating chicken soup, grilled meat and deep-fried cheese sticks, whilst slowly sipping to cold beers and fruit cocktails. Laughing children are rushing down the water slide and into the pool, whilst their parents are cautiously watching from their plastic chair under the umbrella shade. A live, four-man band is playing musica llanera—traditional music from the Venezuelan interiors—from a small stage next to the pool, whilst the aging life guard blows his whistle every now and then when someone is too slow to leave the water slide. It could have been any of the pool clubs scattered around Caracas—most of them private, expensive, and for members only—except that it is not. This is the pool club Circulo Militar el Lagunito, the social club for military officers and staff belonging to the Venezuelan Bolivarian Armed Forces, FANB.
But there is a twist: in this social club, anyone is welcome, no questions asked. From Wednesday till Sunday, the pool club is open for a small, merely symbolic price to the general public. Some of those present are military officers- the combination of their haircut and posture gives them away. But the majority of the sun devotees present are ordinary citizens, and most of them, judged by their clothes, accessories and physical appearances, are not amongst Venezuela’s wealthy. Rather, as Miguel, the cashier in the pool restaurant confirms: “here comes the middle class and the popular class: they come from all over, from El Paraiso and El Valle, or any of the popular parishes around.”
From coup to politics
It was the government of the now-deceased Hugo Chávez that opened up the military’s formerly closed off spaces such as its social clubs, the military compound Fuerte Tiuna, and its university to the general public. This formed part of his efforts to foment closer bonds between the military and civilians: una alianza cívica-militar—a civil-military alliance—constituting a key pillar in his state-building project.
This idea of a civil-military alliance has also been at the core of my inquiries here in Caracas for the past one and a half month. As part of the Everyday Maneuvers project, I have tried to take a closer look at the role of the military in contemporary Venezuelan society, and the texture of the relationship between the military and civilians.
This is not a question with easy answers. Venezuela is a highly complex and not least polarized country, characterized by radically different political standpoints, world views, life words and interpretations of Venezuela’s past and present.
Diverging views on the military is at the core of these differences. To highlight some main points of controversies: for many of the opponents to the government, the Chávez government, bearing in mind that Chávez originally was a military officer himself, represented a damaging blurring of the boundaries between civilian politics and the military. The fact that a high number of former military officers have served time as civil servants and won elected positions such as state governors has greatly fuelled this perception. Moreover, the formation of the so-called Bolivarian militia, a re-foundation and politization of the ordinary reserve corps, has fuelled fear that a militarization of civil life is taking place.
To supporters of the government, however, Chávez’ background as a military man, and his close alliances with the military, was what kept him from ending his days as many other leftist-nationalists in Latin American history: disposed by a military coup. The failed coup against him in 2002, carried out by a wide array of civilian opponents in collaboration with dissident military officers and with some kind of US involvement, gives credits to this claim.
Moreover, the approximation between the military and civilians had another dimension to it. Indeed, a historical reference underpinning the “civil-military alliance” is the Caracazo massacre in 1989, where an un-known number of poor people—the number oscillates between 300 and 3000—were killed by the military on the orders of the civilian government. “Never again”, was the cry afterwards, and an underlying idea for the “civil-military alliance” is exactly that close collaboration and identification between the military and civilians would pre-empt that such an event could ever take place again. To that end, the military has also been active participants in rolling out many of the social programs that has contributed to lifting millions of Venezuelans out of poverty for the past decade or so.
Furthermore, the military, reflecting broader processes of social change in Venezuelan society, has become much more socially and racially diverse, with a higher incursion of people from poor background—and not to mention a high number of women—also into its higher ranks. This has converted it from a closed-off elitist institution into a much more diverse reflection of Venezuelan society as a whole.
Currently, Venezuela is a country facing a critical conjuncture. The government of Chávez’ successor Nicolas Maduro, who won the presidential elections in 2013 with a narrow margin, is struggling to overcome severe and complex economic problems in the form of inflation, shortages of certain key consumer products, and reduced reserves due to the collapse in oil prices. The underlying causes for the produce shortages are too complex to spell out here, also involving hoarding by powerful business sectors with presumably political motives, but it is also known that an important factor is highly profitable smuggling of Venezuelan products over the border to Colombia; an activity that often involves the active or passive collaboration of military guards. At the same time, the Venezuelan military is heavily involved in administrating the extensive distribution of discounted food and household products across the country—a distribution system that helps alleviate (poor) people's experience of the country's current economic distress.
On the other hand, the issue of corruption, a tale as old as Venezuela’s birth as a country, is a constant source of complaint. Also government supporters are condemning how certain power networks, amongst them well-placed military officials, are siphoning off state funds. Importantly, people claim that this problem has become aggravated after Chávez’ death.
Moreover, in the spring of 2014, highly violent riots led by middle-class youth demanding the president’s exit and championed by political leaders from the radical right, erupted across the country. The riots left 43 people dead, amongst them opponents and supporters of the government as well as military- and police officials. Whilst the demonstrators also caused several of these deaths, a number of officials are under arrest and investigation for human rights violations during these riots. This memory is still present in people’s mind, and for the past few weeks there have been speculations about new rounds of violent protests building up, albeit so far there have only been some minor, scattered episodes.
And finally, there is the question of Venezuela’s soaring crime rates; its homicide rates being one of the highest in the world. The National Guard, a branch of the military, has been given a key role in crime-prevention programs, making them a constant presence in the public sphere. This has received criticism from many observers, though it should be added that ordinary citizens seems to appreciate this presence- and certainly prefer them above the police forces which has a dubious reputation.
In sum, Venezuela is facing a host of challenges and controversies, and the question of the role of the military in society, and the relationship between civil and military forces, is at the core of many of these concerns.
However, back by the pool as I write this blogpost, both civil and military Venezuelans, as well as fieldworkers, can put these complicated issues aside for a while. As the Sunday afternoon draws to an end, people continue playing card, sipping their beers and splash in the pool. The folklore band is being replaced by a DJ, who reminds people that the pool club is a non-smoking area, and instructs children and adults alike to be careful in the water slide. Salsa music subsequently fills the air, and some couples starts to dance between the plastic chairs. The father on the table next to me, his hair cut unmistakably that of a military officer, cuddles his toddler. Two teenage girls pose for a photo by the pool, whilst small children take their afternoon nap on their parents’ shoulders. Another military officer, this one dressed in his green uniform, stands by the hot dog cart eating one hot dog after the other whilst chatting and laughing with the vendors. Here and now, at least, the Venezuelan civil-military alliance seems to be one of perfect harmony.