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Bolivarian Armed Forces
National Armed Forces
Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales - FAN

The 05 October 2009 approval by the National Assembly (AN) of 45 changes to the year-old Organic Law of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces included the deletion of "national" in the names of the Army, Navy and Air Force, but leaving the moniker "Bolivarian" from the 2008 reform. With a "Bolivarian" orientation instead of a "National" view, Chavez could deploy Venezuelan forces to other "Bolivarian" states in ALBA. Conversely, non-Venezuelans from ALBA countries could serve in the "Bolivarian Army."

In 2006 the total strength of the National Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales - FAN) was estimated at 82,000, broken down into 34,000 army personnel, 18,000 navy, 7,000 air force, and 23,000 Armed Forces of Cooperation (Fuerzas Armadas de Cooperación - FAC) -- also known as the National Guard. The FAC functioned as paramilitary internal security force at national level.

Other federal police organizations included Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (Dirección de Seguridad e Inteligencia Policial--Disip) under Ministry of Interior, Technical and Judicial Police (Policía Técnica y Judicial--PTJ) under Ministry of Justice, and Traffic Police under Ministry of Transport and Communications. These three organizations totaled some 8,000 personnel in 1990. Some 18,000 personnel in state, metropolitan, and municipal police forces exercised local jurisdiction. Largest such force was Metropolitan Police Force of Caracas, with about 9,000 members.

Until Rómulo Betancourt's 1959 inauguration, with the exception of the brief trienio period of 1945-48, Venezuela had been ruled by a succession of military-based caudillos stretching back to "The Liberator" himself, Simón Bolívar Palacios. The nation exhibited all the characteristics of a traditional society -- an agricultural economy, a small economic and political elite, and militarism -- until the oil industry developed in earnest after World War II. The changes wrought by the influx of oil revenue eventually altered the military institution as much as the society as a whole.

When civilian government returned in 1958, the military had been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the public by the performance of the venal and reactionary regime of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. This rejection of the military strengthened the appeal of civilian politicians, raised the profile of reformist officers within the armed forces, and deterred coup plans by isolated sectors of the officer corps. In short, the return to democracy symbolized a social consensus that supported the concept of civilian control over an apolitical military. By 1990 Venezuela was one of the few Latin American countries where a democratic system had produced a military institution that exerted little or no direct influence on the government.

Under a succession of democratically elected presidents, the military improved its capabilities and expertise. It has also enhanced its public image. Although defense ministers and other leaders still felt compelled to deny occasional rumors of coup, such rumors appeared to have no serious basis. And despite popular disillusionment with the economic performance of civilian administrations, there was no indication that Venezuelans would support a return to military rule. Democracy in Venezuela was institutionalized, and no serious threats to its survival, from within or without, were evident.

Venezuela's prevailing political calm came to an end in 1989, when Venezuela experienced riots in which more than 200 people were killed in Caracas. The so-called Caracazo was a response to an economic austerity program launched by then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Three years later, in February 1992, a group of army lieutenant colonels led by future President Hugo Chavez mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt, claiming that the events of 1989 showed that the political system no longer served the interests of the people. A second, equally unsuccessful coup attempt by other officers followed in November 1992.

Broadly speaking, the FAN by the 1990s exhibited two major missions: external defense and internal security. The counterinsurgency mission of the 1960s and 1970s had terminated with the successful resolution of the conflict with leftist guerrillas. After that time, the military's approach to its missions became less focused, and the armed forces became a more technocratic and bureaucratic institution that was more susceptible to the pressures of politics. Although Venezuela's oil resources lent a certain impetus to the external defense mission of the FAN, the absence of a viable external threat dulled the response of policy makers and shifted the motivation of defense planners away from contingency planning and more toward political considerations, such as maintaining military pay and benefits. This phenomenon appeared likely to persist and to intensify as the potential conventional threat from Cuba, which had seemed viable during the early 1980s, continued to wane during the 1990s.

Venezuelan military doctrine, in keeping with the perceived role of the armed forces in a democratic state, theoretically emphasized readiness for external defense. Strategic planners attempted to prepare their forces to engage in a conflict of limited objectives. Tactically, the doctrine called for the employment of combined forces capable of employing significant firepower and shock capability, while also displaying adequate mobility. It stressed an active defense in which regular forces would engage the enemy and reserves would man static defensive positions. The FAN's amphibious and air transport capabilities, though limited, extended its strategic reach somewhat; naval forces also lent a degree of support to a ground effort in the areas of sealift and antisubmarine warfare. Although the FAN's ability to implement its doctrine was hampered by equipment shortages, maintenance problems, and other logistical shortcomings, these problems generally were less severe than those exhibited by most other Latin American military institutions.

Although the probability of external conflict was low, the role of the FAN in national life was still significant. Even under the democratic system reestablished in 1958, the FAN (including the National Guard) retained certain traditional responsibilities. Among these were the regulation and control of national highways; the security of basic industries such as petroleum and petrochemicals, energy production, and steel production; the administration of the prison system; the enforcement of federal taxes on alcoholic beverages; and the regulation of customs and immigration. In response to the FAN's traditional concern with the national borders, an active-duty officer usually headed the Directorate of Frontiers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to law, Venezuelan frontier regions were considered security zones; accordingly, foreigners could not own land in these areas, and no construction or industrial development could take place there without the approval of the government as expressed by the Ministry of National Defense. Other security zones included coastal areas, territory surrounding lakes and rivers, and areas adjacent to military installations and to industrial facilities engaged in basic industrial production. In a more limited sphere, the FAN also conducted small-scale civic-action projects. Most of these projects were confined to the dispensing of medical care -- immunization and dental and medical attention -- to residents of isolated rural areas. The army has also provided literacy programs for these citizens.

In theory, the internal security mission of the FAN involved the National Guard more than the other branches of service. This stemmed from the purely domestic orientation of the National Guard. In practice, however, the delineation of mission blurred somewhat. National Guard posts in frontier regions have responded to cross-border attacks and incursions by Colombian insurgent forces, thereby fulfilling an external defense mission. Some observers also have characterized National Guard efforts against drug trafficking as an external defense effort. By the same token, Venezuelan governments have accepted the fact that regular military forces at times may have to be employed in order to maintain order in major cities. When riots or violent demonstrations have broken out, the public routinely has demanded a response from the minister of defense in addition to the efforts expended by local police.

Recent Developments

Although the previous constitution stated that the military was expected to be "apolitical, obedient, and non-deliberating," the 1999 constitution states only that the military should be "without militancy." The new constitution also gives the president the authority to make military promotions without legislative approval and allows the military the right to vote.

The internal security role of the armed forces was strengthened in September 2002 when President Chávez decreed 107 security zones in the national territory, including eight in Caracas. Until then, the armed forces traditionally had security zones only in the border areas.

At the end of 2002, the government of President Hugo Chávez reorganized the armed forces into a unified force called the National Armed Force (Fuerza Armada Nacional - FAN). The president is commander in chief of the FAN. The president's authority is exercised through the minister of national defense, who is normally a senior military officer, although the first civilian defense minister to hold the post in recent decades served from February 2001 to April 2002. The National Defense Council advises the president on national security matters, and the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, on defense matters.

During 2003, the FAN reportedly became an increasingly politicized force under the new defense minister, a general, and has been restructured and purged of anyone suspected of political disloyalty to President Chávez. Those purged included senior National Guard officers who were at the forefront of the rebellion against President Chávez in April 2002.

The military presence within the Chávez government is extensive. Numerous active-duty and retired officers have been appointed to replace civilians in high-ranking positions in central and regional government institutions and state-owned companies. In 2003 five of the 14 presidential cabinet members had previously served in the military, and in January 2005 two ministers, including the minister of defense, were active-duty generals.

President Chávez reportedly has ordered Venezuela's armed forces to implement a new Cuban-style strategy in which the top priority is preparing to fight a war of resistance against an invasion by the United States. In addition, Chávez has ordered a doubling of the army's reserve, to more than 100,000 troops under his personal command. "Popular defense units" of 50 to 500 civilians are to be established in workplaces and on farms.

In addition to the official security forces, Chávez has distributed weapons to the estimated 10,000 members of the Bolivarian Circles, independently organized groups of Chávez supporters at the grassroots level of Venezuelan society. These groups are modeled on Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and operate in groups of between seven and 11 people.

As of January 2005, two pro-Chávez leftist militant groups whose objective reportedly is to confront intervention by US and other foreign forces were known to be operating in Venezuela. Chávez himself has acknowledged the existence of the 500-member Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación-FBL), which reportedly has been operating in the Venezuelan border area as a local kidnapping and extortion "franchise" of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The other pro-Chávez militant group is the Armed People's Army (Ejército del Pueblo en Armas-EPA), which emerged in January 2005.

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