In the late twentieth century, communism, discredited as a political ideology and as a means for economic and societal sustainment, collapsed with great notoriety in Eastern Europe thus ending a half century-old Cold War. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela didn’t get that memo. In the early twenty first century, the notion of an authoritarian government with unchecked control over the mechanisms and treasury of the state, pre-occupation with the curtailment of individual freedoms & the formulation a cult of personality, meets with global rejection. This is perhaps most vividly demonstrated by “Arab Spring.” Hugo Chavez didn’t catch that footage. Current day Venezuela is a case study, a reverse one, on how not to manage governmental and societal affairs. This assumes of course that the desired outcome is not the evisceration of a country’s economy, democratic institutions, and future prospects for generations-- all to ensure the political longevity of a single individual and the financial aggrandizement of a corrupt clique. As has been amply documented, the craters of twelve years of Chavista economic mismanagement, most negatively impacted on the poor, are strewn across the entire Venezuelan societal landscape. Venezuela’s long-term prospects have been equally damaged by a gradual process in which Chavistas assumed control, re-staffed, and redirected previously independent institutional mechanisms to serve the ends of a failed agenda. These now-conformist governmental bodies, led by Chavez-appointed political hacks, serve to outwardly maintain a democratic façade. Government organizations, where political orthodoxy is prized over technical competence, have predictably become monuments to Chavista dysfunctionality. A look at the demise of one such institution, the Venezuelan Air Force, offers insights on the mechanisms and gradual processes by which an authoritarian government debilitated, usurped, and reconfigured a long-serving pillar of its former democracy.
They were proud once, the Venezuelan Air Force. In the 1980s and 1990s the Fuerza Aerea Venezolana, or FAV, was arguably the best in South America. In terms of hardware and professional development, the FAV was a regional leader. Venezuela was one of the first countries of the world to designate its Air Force as an independent service[i] and established its Air Force Academy more than 30 years before the United States did likewise.[ii] The FAV was the first Latin American Air Force to be equipped with the F-16 [iii] and its inventory also included such stalwart aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules, the CF-5, OV-10, and Mirage 50. Military exchanges between the FAV and the US Air Force, and indeed all branches of the Department of Defense, were robust with both nations beneficiating from the interaction. Venezuelan Air Force officers participated in exchange tours with U.S. Navy units and members conducted Professional Military Education (PME) at US War Colleges and service academies. Colonel Kristian Skinner, USAF, was stationed as a Captain in Venezuela from 1995-1998. Colonel Skinner first graduated from the FAV War College and then subsequently served as an exchange line pilot with the Venezuelan Fighter Group 16 (F-16’s) in Maracay. Colonel Skinner recalls the emphasis the FAV placed in showcasing the operational abilities of its aircraft and personnel during its annual Air Force Day celebrations. This event previously commemorated the establishment of the Venezuelan Air Force Academy on 10 December 1920, and also served as the generally recognized date of the founding of the FAV as a military service. During the annual airshow, the FAV would open the gates of El Libertador Air Base in Maracay, about 30 miles to the south of Caracas. The FAV would then in spectacular fashion demonstrate its full range of capabilities. As an aerial participant in two such venues, Colonel Skinner remembers the airshows as being particularly raucous affairs that were very popular with the Venezuelan populace. The FAV would put aloft every flyable airframe in its inventory, literally in excess of 200 aircraft. Featured displays would include 16-ship formations of F-16s, two-on-two mock dogfights, bomb-dropping and strafing demonstrations. Air Refueling tankers, transport aircraft, and simulated helicopter assaults would round out the performance. Colonel Skinner believes that the December airshows were was done with such realism that the Venezuelan populace had a sophisticated appreciation of the nature of tactical air power. In addition to the annual Air Force Day airshows, the apogee of the FAV was most notably marked by two separate deployments of its F-16 aircrews to the US Air Force’s pre-eminent combat training exercise, RED FLAG, held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The FAV was the first Western Hemisphere Air Force to be invited to this event.[iv] The legacy of the FAV during this period was such that even current day Venezuelan Air Force members will privately acknowledge that its service was a more capable and professional service during this timeframe.
1992 was a seismic year for both Venezuela and the FAV. Similar in method to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 “Beer Hall Putsch,” a violent and premature attempt at seizing control of the elected German government by lethal force, Army Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez was a key instigator in an April 1992 coup d’état attempt by rogue Venezuelan Army units.[v] Like Hitler, Chavez’s effort was short lived after failing to gain traction with a non-participating military and civilian populace. Both individuals were incarcerated following their attempts where they continued to plan the advancement of their political movements. On 27 November 1992, almost nine months after Chavez’s failed coup, a second violent attempt was made to usurp power. This action is generally characterized as an Air Force-led event. With Air Force aircraft massed at El Libertador Air Base in preparation for the annual Air Force Day celebrations, rebel pilots whose co-conspirators were in communication with and encouraged by Chavez in prison, bombed and strafed not only Miraflores Places (the Venezuelan White House), but also two Air Force bases.[vi] Rebel Army units again participated in the coup attempt. Like the April action, the November 1992 insurrection never mobilized the civilian populace. Importantly, institutionalist Air Force units remained loyal to Venezuela’s elected government. Upon commencement of the rebel air attacks two loyalist F-16 pilots hurried to El Libertador Air Base, absconded with two alert aircraft, and took to the skies against rebel OV-10s, Mirages, and Tucanos. The F-16s would ultimately shoot down two of the coup pilots. Upon the realization that their assault on the government was again failing, Air Force coup members, including its acknowledged ringleader Gen Francisco Visconti, would attempt to escape justice by scurrying from Venezuela to Peru in a C-130.[vii] In their wake however lay 171 mortalities,[viii] the vast majority of them civilian. Ultimately 27 November 1992 would mark the beginning of the Venezuelan Air Force’s descent into its current, dishonorable state as a broken ornament of an authoritarian government. Chavez’s nine political lives would see him through his incarceration until 1994 when he secured an early release from prison. Again mirroring Hitler’s ascension to power, Chavez rode a wave of popular discontent fueled by dismal economic conditions in being elected Venezuela’s head of state in 1999. Upon obtaining the Venezuelan presidency Chavez would undertake a campaign to implant a socialist agenda on all of Venezuelan society and to induce the Venezuelan military, including the FAV, as vehicles to implement this vision.
The FAV’s previously close alignment with the US Air Force and its traditional ethos as an independently-minded force have long been a source of concern for Chavez, one that he has gone to great lengths to address. Not being able to outright disband the Venezuelan Air Force, the Chavista government has pursued a strategy to completely remake it into a subservient organization. A major component in this planned, methodical process has involved inducing or removing institutionalist-minded officers from the service and replacing them with co-opted loyalists. This method is most vividly exemplified by the current practice of mass-promoting non-commissioned officers and junior enlisted members directly to officer ranks[ix]. While many militaries, including those of the U.S., have processes for identifying, developing, and elevating exemplary enlisted members as commissioned officers, Venezuela differs in that it extends this practice to essentially its entire enlisted force. The current Venezuelan method is to send a preponderance of its enlisted to a short-duration political indoctrination course where they emerge holding officer rank and the promise of higher pay. Such members are commissioned as “Technical Officers.” The Air Force is rife with stories of formerly-enlisted crew chiefs and maintainers who in short order achieved greater rank than the pilots they previously served under. The Technical Officer practice is understandably divisive as its intent is to induce outrage among disaffected professional officers, those who had to compete for Academy selection and then for career promotion. These members then witness Technical Officers as they essentially are handed the same ranks. In describing these Technical Officer promotions as “acts of social justice,” Chavez has publically encouraged military members with objections to the practice to leave the armed forces.[x] Their positions are of course readily replenished by non-qualified personnel. Another tactic is for military members deemed ideologically questionable to be removed from their positions and not given new assignments. These persons are essentially relegated to indefinite home administrative leave (“en casa”) until they are forcibly retired from the military. An apparent non-consideration is that such members depart along with their professional and technical experience.
It has been noted that half of the Venezuelan population is under 25 years old[xi] and thus most have little personal recollection of life before Chavez. The government seizes on this in reissuing self-serving versions of Venezuelan history. An oft-used tool in the remaking of the Venezuelan military has been an Orwellian-like re-writing of historical events to indoctrinate its newest military members.[xii] In undermining the traditional FAV, the government has made great use of the November 1992 ‘Air Force’ coup. For institutionalist officers the participation by handful of rebel FAV members was a shameful and painful event.[xiii] This is primarily because the rebels took up arms, employed lethal force, and killed their brother servicemen. Chavista propaganda has reshaped the telling of the coup such that it is now portrayed as a civilian-military uprising inspired by social justice and the need to liberate Venezuela from an entrenched oligarchy[xiv]. The old FAV is no more. In its place as Venezuela’s erstwhile Air Force is an entity Chavez renamed in 2006 as the Bolivarian Military Aviation (Aviacion Militar Bolivariana or the AMB). In 2009 Chavez officially changed the traditional celebration date for the AMB from 10 December to 27 November in official deference to the November 1992 coup[xv]. Appearing next to Chavez as he signed the degree mandating the date change was Francisco Visconti. The AMB experience epitomizes life in current day Venezuela where political loyalty trumps all other professional attributes.
A study of current Venezuelan military doctrine demonstrates how the AMB, and indeed the entire Venezuelan armed forces, have been used as a mechanism for the indoctrination of Venezuelan society writ large. Prior to the advent of Chavez, Venezuela’s Air Force doctrine was modeled after that of the United States.[xvi] Again, because of Chavez’s paranoia and desire to disconnect the Venezuelan military from any U.S. influences, US military doctrine is now a forbidden subject. In filling the doctrinal void the Venezuelan armed forces now operate under what is purported to be a new Grand Strategy. This ‘strategy’ is more accurately described as a political indoctrination effort to inculcate Venezuelan society with the government agenda. Venezuelan’s new doctrine is organized around the tenets of ‘War of Resistance,’ but the term itself is used interchangeably with other monikers such as “Asymmetric Warfare”, “Fourth Generation Warfare”, or “Civic-Military Insurgency.” This doctrine premises that the United States acts out a desire to plunder Venezuela of its petroleum riches and conducts an invasion of the country. In this scenario, Venezuela’s Air Force and other conventional armed services confront U.S. invading forces but ultimately succumb to U.S. numerical superiority. Venezuelan Militia Forces take over the struggle and along with the remnants of the conventional forces, meld with a united civilian population in conducting asymmetrical, guerrilla, or insurgency warfare against occupying forces. The Militia insurgents, strengthened by the popular will of the Venezuelan populace, eventually wear down the will of the U.S. forces in inducing their withdrawal.[xvii] References to “War of Resistance” are everywhere in evidence in any National or Government event involving Venezuelan military personnel, such as in parades or air shows. The very overt and constant references to War of Resistance are used to saturate and immerse the Venezuelan populace with the message that every person, be them a farmer, a student, or a truck driver, is a combatant in arms against the imperial intentions of the United States.
More ominous than mere political indoctrination, War of Resistance Doctrine also provides to Chavez the pretext or justification for measures he has enacted to perpetuate himself in power. As the Militia has been designated with a preeminent role in conducting insurgency warfare against the U.S., War of Resistance Doctrine legitimizes the government’s expansion of the Militia Forces and its elevation as a military service on equal status to the other Venezuelan armed forces. The Militia Forces offer Chavez a force that operates apart from the conventional armed forces that he evidently does not entirely trust. Although ostensibly to be used against U.S. invaders, Militia forces are readily employable against a Venezuelan civilian populace of the type that in 2011 tumbled Arab autocrats, most recently Chavez’s Libyan ally Colonel Moammar Gaddafi. Seemingly counterintuitive to the needs of insurgency warfare are Chavez’s recent expenditure of billions of dollars for conventional Russian and Chinese military hardware. As a flexible catch-all, War of Resistance Doctrine magnanimously offers a role for Venezuela’s conventional forces and its new hardware in being offered up as fodder to US forces in the opening stages of a conflict.[xviii] The new armament more importantly serves a practical and visceral purpose: they make for a better parade. These new weapons systems displayed in public venues and on government-mandated television broadcasts serve to enthrall and rally supporters and to evoke emotional, nationalistic pride. These military displays are also meant to convey an image of strength and menace to oppositionists. As Venezuela’s supreme authority, Chavez has a monopoly on expropriating military assets for his personal political advantage, as he does with all government resources. These are, needless to say, unavailable options to the Venezuelans who oppose him. War of Resistance Doctrine provides one last, indispensible tool. As all authoritarian mass movements need an epic enemy, real or imagined, to rally itself around, War of Resistance Doctrine is used to fan a sense of impending threat and urgency originating from a self-selected, readily identifiably, enemy-by-choice, the United States of America. To a U.S. or foreign observer not predisposed by a prevailing political mindset to unquestionably accept government rhetoric at face value, these efforts are comical. It fundamental to understand however that, like all of Chavez’s public displays or histrionics that appear nonsensical or buffoonish to foreign observers, government messages are intended foremost for an internal Venezuelan audience. This is the only group that really matters to Chavez because it is these people that will ultimately determine his length of stay in Miraflores Palace.
As an institution previously beholden to its Constitution and not to an individual, the policies pursued during the twelve years of the current regime and its co-opted leadership have proven disastrous for the Venezuelan Air Force. Despite government bombast proclaiming Venezuela as having the best pilots flying the best aircraft in the world, the results of a deliberate government program to politicize and neutralize the Air Force as a potential source of opposition are plainly evident. By all accounts the AMB is a completely broken force. Legacy aircraft are derelict. In 2006 the Venezuelan government’s refusal to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts rendered the Air Force ineligible to purchase replacement parts for its aircraft. [xix] The AMB has been reduced to attempting to procure aircraft parts through illicit circumvention schemes.[xx] Despite the advent and billions of dollars of investment in Russian and Chinese aircraft, the only AMB aircraft which publically appear in any numbers are recently acquired Chinese-made K-8 trainers. The condition of its once-proud fleet of F-16s, formerly a source of national pride, is heart-breaking to its current and former pilots. AMB F-16’s had been previous participants at South America’s pre-eminent air exercise CRUZEX held bi-annually in Brazil (the 2010 CRUZEX V iteration drew fighter units from France, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, as well as USAF F-16’s).[xxi] Although invited and its participation had been planned on, in 2010 the AMB F-16’s were a last-minute no-show. [xxii] Mirage 50 aircraft which Venezuela unloaded on Ecuador in 2009 were decried by Ecuadorian media accounts as “chatarra“ or junk.”[xxiii] 2010 was noteworthy year in Venezuelan history in which the country celebrated both its Bicentennial and the Air Force its 90th anniversary as a service. [xxiv] In comparison to its former command presence at such events, the AMB aerial display at both events was lamentable, particularly in the Air Force Day ceremony held on 27 November which for the first time reflected its new day on the government calendar. Air Force Day now serves primarily as a pulpit for Venezuelan military and civilian politicians to serve up recycled political rhetoric.
Since government policies have deteriorated its conventional military utility, the Venezuelan armed forces are now essentially a manpower pool spending much of their time relegated to working public works projects. Government media typically characterizes such non-traditional military missions with glowing, altruistic jargon with military personnel described as being enthusiastic contributors to social justice projects.[xxv] Despite these governmental attempts at describing the Venezuelan military as staunch, patriotic, supporters of the Chavista vision, this portrayal is self-delusional at best. The reality is that the majority of Venezuelan military members that choose to toe the party line do so because their career progression depends on it, financial inducement, or because of fear of government retribution. The divergent fates of two Venezuelan General Officers best illustrate these points. The first example belongs to retired General and former Minister of Defense Raul Baduel. General Baduel ironically led a group of forces which freed Chavez from military arrest in 2002. By 2007 Baduel had become disillusioned with Chavez and had become a very prominent oppositionist in decrying Venezuela’s path to authoritarian rule. [xxvi] Beginning in 2008 the government ratcheted persecution of Baduel culminating with his politically-motivated arrest in 2009. The Venezuelan government alleged corruption which ostensibly occurred during Baduel’s tenure as Defense Minister. He has been incarcerated since that time. [xxvii] A reverse example belongs to Venezuela’s current Minister of Defense and Chavez favorite, General Henry Rangel Silva. In 2008 Rangel was identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as having materially aided the Colombian terrorist group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in assisting with narcotics trafficking.[xxviii] In 2010 Rangel ‘s ascended to the head of Venezuela’s military shortly after publically declaring the Venezuelan military was “wedded” to the Chavista agenda and also in implying the armed forces would not tolerate an opposition Presidential victory.[xxix] The opposite trajectories of its former and current Ministers of Defense individuals drive home the point to common Venezuelan military members of what personal outcomes they can expect in relation to their support of the government.
The Chavista agenda forcibly implanted on the FAV is like an artificial graft incompatible with its host or the wrong blood type infused in a patient. It is ultimately doomed to rejection. The physical state of the Venezuela is a testament to this. Beyond Venezuela, the negative experience wreaked on the FAV and the decrepit state of its leadership should serve as a warning notice to military members to build their immunities to the cancers of politicization and self-aggrandizement. Although certain economic realities may (or perhaps may not) compel the U.S. to purchase and refine Venezuelan petroleum, there is not a constitutional requirement that the United States be delusional about the nature of the person it is doing business with. Chavista policy toward the United States, and the manner by which Chavez mobilizes his supporters, is driven by his irretrievable need for the U.S. to serve as Venezuela’s recognizable enemy, and also for Venezuela to be rewritten as the U.S’s historic victim. This of course is an exhausted tactic of failed and displaced dictators of the last century. It is also with this nationalistic shtick that Chavez justifies colossal governmental failures and the squandering of billions of Venezuela’s petrodollars. Although Chavez is a home-grown problem for Venezuelans to solve, the U.S. should never expect that its relations with Chavista Venezuela can ever approach long-term normalcy. Conciliatory attempts to “reset relations“ with Chavez should be acknowledged for exactly what they will lead ultimately lead to: a time-out agreed to by Chavez only because some transitory need compels him for the time-being (“por ahora”) to tone down his act.
[i] Aeroflight.co.uk, “Venezuela Air Force,”25 July 2010, http://www.aeroflight.co.uk/waf/americas/venezuela/AirForce/Venezuela-af-home.htm (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[iii] F-16.net, “Fuerza Aérea Venezolana
Venezuelan Air Force – FAV,” http://www.f-16.net/f-16_users_article25.html (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[iv] FAV Club, Venezuela, “La FAV en Red Flag,”2000, http://www.fav-club.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=243:la-fav-en-red-flag-&catid=25:fuerzas-aereas-y-sistemas-aeronauticos-&Itemid=24 (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[v] BBC News, “Profile: Hugo Chavez,” 4 July 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10086210 (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[vi] Version Final.com, “27N La Historia de un baño de sangre,” (23 Nov 2007), http://www.versionfinal.com.ve/wp/2007/11/23/27n-la-historia-de-un-bao-de-sangre/ (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[vii] U.S. Department of State, “Rebel Military seeks political asylum in Peru (28 Nov 1992), ”http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/147573.pdf (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[viii] Version Final.com, “27N La Historia de un baño de sangre,” (23 Nov 2007), http://www.versionfinal.com.ve/wp/2007/11/23/27n-la-historia-de-un-bao-de-sangre/ (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[ix] Enfoques365.net, “697 oficiales tecnicos militares promovio el president Chavez” (30 Jun 2009), http://www.enfoques365.net/N4171-697-oficiales-tcnicos-militares-promovi-el-presidente-chvez.html (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[x] Informe 21.com, “Chávez descarta "malestar" en la Fuerza Armada debido a su "revolución military," (30 Jun 2009), http://informe21.com/hugo-chavez/chavez-descarta-malestar-fuerza-armada-debido-su-revolucion-militar (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xi] El Pais, “Venezuela sin Chavez,” (31 July 2011), http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/Venezuela/Chavez/elpepiint/20110731elpepiint_4/Tes (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xiii] Asociacion Civil Control Ciudadano, “Rechazan el cambio de fecha aniversaria de la Fuerza Aérea”, (11 Dec 2009), http://www.controlciudadano.org/noticias/detalle.php?¬id=6125 (accessed 7 Sep 2011)
[xiv] Articulo Z. com, “La Participación De La Fav En La Insurgencia Civco Militar Del 27 De Noviembre De 1992,” (19 Dec 2010), http://www.articuloz.com/politica-articulos/la-participacion-de-la-fav-en-la-insurgencia-civco-militar-del-27-de-noviembre-de-1992-3877741.html (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xv] Martha Colmenares.com, “Hugo Chávez decreta celebrar Día de la Fuerza Aérea en fecha del golpe 27N/1992,” (28 Nov 2009), http://www.marthacolmenares.com/2009/11/28/hugo-chavez-decreta-celebrar-dia-de-la-fuerza-aerea-en-fecha-del-golpe-27n1992/ (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xvi] AOL Noticias, “Ajusta Venezuela su doctrina militar a la 'guerra asimétrica',” (10 Jan 11), http://noticias.aollatino.com/2011/01/10/venezuela-guerra-asimetrica/ (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xvii] Aporrea.com, “¿Guerra asimétrica o guerra de todo el pueblo? parte final,” (7 June 2005),http://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/a14623.html (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xviii] Caracas Chronicles.com, “Fourth Generation Asymmetric People’s Wars and the T-72B1s,” (1 June 2011), http://caracaschronicles.com/2011/06/01/fourth-generation-assymetric-peoples-wars-and-the-t-72b1s/, (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xix] Global Security, “F-16 Fighting Falcon-International Users,” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/f-16-fms.htm
[xx] The Arizona Republic. “Mesa Aviation Executive Indicted on on Arms Charges,” http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/10/28/20101028mesa-stillwell-aviation-marsh-venezuela1029.html
[xxi]Air Combat Combat Command press release. “Airmen participate in Brazilian-led Exercise CRUZEX V.” http://www.acc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123230247
[xxii] Poder Aereo. “Cruzex V and Venezuela?” http:// http://www.aereo.jor.br/2010/08/23/cruzex-v-e-a-venezuela/
[xxiii]Hoy.com.ec, “Rechazan el 'regalo chatarra' de Hugo Chávez (23 Sep 2009), http://www.hoy.com.ec/noticias-ecuador/rechazan-el-regalo-chatarra-de-h-chavez-369301.html (accessed 7 Sep 2011).
[xxv]Venezuela Analysis. “The Venezuelan Military: the making of an anomaly “ http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/175
[xxvi] New York Times. “Why I parted ways with Chavez,” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/01/opinion/01baduel.html
[xxvii]Wikipedia.org. “Raul Baduel,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra%C3%BAl_Baduel
[xxviii]U.S. Department of Treasury. “Treasury Targets Venezuelan Government officials helping the FARC” http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1132.aspx
[xxix] Wilkipedia.org. Henry Rangel Silva. “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Rangel_Silvailkipedia.org. “