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How a military overhaul in Venezuela keeps the troops at Maduro

"Real Power"

Venezuela's "Bolivarian Revolution," as Chávez called its redevelopment of the country, has its roots in military uprising. Six years before being elected president in 1998, Chávez led a failed coup against Carlos Andrés Pérez, a deeply unpopular president, whom Congress eventually pushed out of office.

When Chávez was in power, he immediately took steps to win the military for his vision of a paternalistic, state-run economy that shares rich oil wealth with long-neglected sections of the Venezuelan population.

With a new constitution in December 1

999, Chávez deprived Congress of its oversight of the promotion of senior officers. This gave the president the ultimate authority to assign flag ranks and empower Allied officers.

With many state and local governments still ruled by rivals at the time, Chávez saw the military as an instrument that could make his administration hard at work. A new program, Plan Bolivar 2000, ordered troops to fill potholes, clean up highways, renovate schools and do other public works.

DESTRUCTION THROUGH DESIGN: Step by step, the Venezuelan government created a top-heavy, confusing chain of command.

The 114-million-dollar effort brought considerable sums of money to the commanders' discretion, giving the officers a taste of a new kind of influence. "What Plan Bolivar taught to 2000 officers was that real power is not to command troops, but to control money," said a retired general. The general who served under Chávez and Maduro spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Soon a part of the funds disappeared.

Miguel Morffe, a retired major, once worked as a captain in the remote northwestern region of La Guajira. He recalls having received a request from superiors to provide materials for an unspecified schoolhouse. When Morffe told a lieutenant-colonel he did not know where the supplies would go, the supervisor told him, "I need these materials for something else."

"The school did not exist," Morffe concluded. 19659011] Military officials did not answer any questions about the alleged incident.

Until 2001, numerous allegations of corruption plagued the "Plan Bolivar" program.

Chávez dismissed General Victor Cruz, the Army Commander in charge of the program. Cruz denied the wrongdoing and was not charged with any offense at this time. The Venezuelan authorities arrested him last year when press reports linked him to funds on an offshore account. A Caracas court ordered him in May to stand trial for unauthorized enrichment.

Reuters could not ask Cruz for a comment or identify his lawyer.

In 2002, Chávez declared he would vote for the Bolivar 2000 plan, he said to Chilean sociologist and political activist Marta Harnecker in an interview, having appointed more allies into mayors and state offices, where they now work with the national government could work. The military, he said, will return to its normal business.

In April of this year, a small group of high-ranking officers encouraged Chávez to further transform the armed forces. Encouraged by conservative leaders and wealthy elites dissatisfied with his left-wing agenda, the officers staged a coup and briefly arrested Chávez.

But the coup d'etat broke up. Within two days, Chávez was back in power.

He dissolved the top ranks. More importantly, he held several powerful offices, including the Department of Defense. From now on, the ministry would manage military budgets and weapons procurement, but they would no longer control the troops themselves. Chávez created the Strategic Operations Command, the agency that manages the stakes.

The move, say former officers, confused the chain of command.

He also revised the overall strategy.

Increasingly worried about Venezuela's oil wealth and leftist policies Chávez urged that the military continue to fit into government and society. "We are transforming the armed forces for a resistance war, for anti-imperialist people's war, for the integral defense of the nation," he said at a National Guard ceremony in 2004.

Military leaders soon had to pledge their allegiance to Chávez and his Bolivarian project, not just the nation itself. Despite the resistance of some commanders, the motto of the ruling party, "Fatherland, Socialism, or Death," echoed through the barracks and over the parade grounds.

From 2005, another factor helped Chávez consolidate his power. Oil prices, years before fracking, would boost global supply, with the notion that the planet's reserves were dwindling. During most of his remaining term of office, Chávez was able to speed up spending and ensure popular support due to the windfall.

Oil money also helped him consolidate relations with like-minded countries, especially those seeking to counterbalance the United States. Venezuela bought billions worth of weapons and equipment from Russia and China. It secured medical and educational support from doctors, teachers, and other counselors who came from Cuba, the closest ally of all.

The Cubans also came with military know-how.

A "cooperation agreement" between Chávez and Fidel Castro was concluded Years earlier, an alliance on security issues had emerged, according to two former officers. According to Venezuelan officers, around 2008 they noticed Cuban officials working in different parts of the armed forces.

General Antonio Rivero, who overseen Venezuela's Civil Defense Authority for the past five years, returned to military activities this year to help Cubans find counseling, training and operational and administrative changes. The Cubans, he told Reuters, advised Chávez to turn the ranks, which had once been built around strategic centers, into a territorial system and to expand the presence of the military throughout the country.

Rivero was stunned during a training session on military technology. A Cuban colonel who chaired the meeting told attendees that the meeting and its contents should be considered state secrets.

"What happens here?" Rivero asked. "How will a foreign force have a state secret?" Rivero left Venezuela in 2014 towards the United States.

Cuban officials did not respond to Reuters requests for comments.

"You have a General in Chief and an Admiral in Chief, which one should you obey?"

The influence of the island would soon be felt in daily operations.

In Cuba, the military is involved in all areas, from public works to telecommunications and tourism. Also in Venezuela, government officials increasingly ordered officers to engage in activities that had little to do with military preparation. Soldiers became increasingly cheap labor for governors and mayors.

In 2010, a general serving in the Andes, a western region on the Colombian border, oversaw a complex mobilization of 5,000 troops for one month of combat training. The general spoke on the condition that he was not named.

Another general from a nearby command called and asked him to interrupt the exercises. The governor, the other officer told the general, wanted to redirect the troops – to install energy-efficient light bulbs in the houses.

When the General refused, Army Commander Euclides Campos issued a formal order to cancel his training. "That would sound shocking to any military professional, but that's exactly how the Venezuelan forces work," said the former general.

Reuters could not reach Campos for a comment.

"Traitors never!"

Chávez Maduro, his vice-president and handpicked successor as candidate of the Socialist Party, won the election to seek his successor.

The new president continued to appoint new flag officers and appointed even more military officials to run agencies. According to Citizen Control, a Venezuelan non-profit organization investigating the armed forces, active and former military personnel held half of Maduro's 32 Cabinet posts by 2017.

In 2014, a collapse of oil prices torpedoed In Venezuela's economy, Maduro further fragmented the military structure.

On the advice of the Cubans, so said former military officers, Maduro created nationwide new command centers. He appointed high-ranking officers to lead new commandos in each of the 23 states and Caracas, the capital, as well as eight regional commandos. His public speeches are now increasingly riddled with terms such as ZODI and REDI, shortcuts for the new commands.

Near military facilities, there was a wealth of new brass was an important figure, "remembers Morffe, the retired major." Not so long ago, I saw one at an airport. He passed a group of soldiers and they did not even say hello.

Flag Officers now monitor some areas Once upon a time there were splinters of larger commandos in areas so remote that they have few human inhabitants.The largest land mass in the Western Sea and Island Command, which is overseen by an admiral, is a Rocky archipelago with little vegetation and no permanent inhabitants.

The officer, Vice Admiral Rodolfo Sánchez, did not respond to a Reuters call in his office.

The one-sided partisan structure has led to missionary sneaking, former officers say.

Im According to information from officers who are familiar with the region, they once supervised some 13,000 troops, and at least 20 generals are in charge today According to the officers familiar with the region ranks, which have shrunk to just 3,000 soldiers, the state of Táchira, one Hotbed of protests against Maduro in recent years. Days before, the government said that explosives from Colombia had been smuggled through Táchira in a drone attack on a military parade in Caracas.

"We all can solve this problem together," said Major General Manuel Bernal to the assembled officers and a group of spectators, including a Reuters reporter.

However, Bernal did not talk about the drones. Or even national security, once a major problem in the Andean region, where Colombia's guerrilla warfare was a threat for a long time. Instead, the generals had gathered to talk about spilling rubbish on a landfill.

They used soldiers to clear garbage and put out a fire there.

An Andean Communications official did not respond to a request from Reuters to speak with Bernal about the episode.

Military commanders barely shy away from such instructions. In the weeks since Guaidó's failed weapons appeal, high-ranking officers have reaffirmed their commitment to Maduro.

"We will continue to fulfill our constitutional duties and fulfill the duties under your command," Secretary of Defense Padrino told Maduro next to the May troops gathered in Caracas.

"Always faithful!", Exclaimed Padrino.

The troops answered unanimously: "Traitors never!"

Additional Reports by Mircely Guanipa in Paraguaná, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Phil Stewart in Washington

The Loyalists

By Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas

Artwork: Maryanne Murray

Photo Editing: Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Video: Havovi Cooper

Design: Pete Hausler [19659065] Edited by Paulo Prada

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