September 20, 2005 | American Legion Magazine

Revolutionary Déjà Vu

By: Paul Crespo.

Hugo Chavez quotes Fidel Castro when asked what is on the horizon for Venezuela: “A new wave will arrive in Latin America, but in a different form.”

Apparently eager to assume the mantle of America's new nemesis, Venezuela's leftist leader Hugo Chavez is mounting the first real challenge to US influence in Latin America in decades.  In 2005 alone he repeatedly bashed the United States as “the imperialist power” and “the world's most evil regime,” accused George W. Bush of plotting to assassinate him, threatened to cut off oil shipments, publicly insulted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and ended long-standing ties between the US military and Venezuela's armed forces.

He met with Iran's former president Mohammad Khatani, expressing support for the country's illegal nuclear program, and traveled to Libya to receive an award from Moammar Gaddafi.  If that isn't enough, Chavez made oil deals with China and announced major weapons purchases from Russia, Brazil and Spain. To fight his media war against capitalism and the United States, Chavez is launching a regional television propaganda network called “Telesur.”

In the July 2003 American Legion Magazine, I detailed links between Chavez and various Latin American and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.  In October 2003, US News and World Report wrote that its two-month review, “including interviews with dozens of US and Latin American sources, confirms the terrorist activity,” adding that “the oil-rich but politically unstable nation of Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Chavez has deepened his already-close ties with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, formalizing their military alliance.  Castro's intelligence services reportedly run major sections of Venezuela's security apparatus, and hundreds of Cuban military advisers are transforming Venezuela's armed forces in Cuba's mold and preparing them for “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States. Their ties are so close, Chavez has said “Cuba and Venezuela are one team.”

According to published news reports, nearly 30,000 Cuban government “health-care workers” and “sports instructors” have fanned out across Venezuela over the past two years, offering free health care and sports training- further “Cubanizing” and “communizing” Venezuelan society.  Little doubt now remains.  Emulating Castro, Chavez is becoming an elected quasi-communist dictator, centralizing political and economic power, silencing all opposition and openly allying with the aging Cuban despot against the United States

While initially moving cautiously, Castro's frail health and deteriorating political situation seem to be prompting Chavez to shift his revolutionary and confrontational efforts into high gear.

Cuba With Oil.  Venezuela is not an impoverished state.  It is the world's fifth-largest oil producer, and Castro gets paid in oil for his assistance.  The more than $1 billion Chavez gives Castro annually is reviving Cuba's bankrupt economy and propping up his decrepit dictatorship.  Fueled by record high oil prices, the radical socialist duo is turning Venezuela into a highly armed clone of communist Cuba, while forging a new global anti-US axis and again fomenting, leftist revolution in Latin America.

“Chavez sees Castro as a father figure,” Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere in the Bush administration and ambassador to Venezuela under President Reagan, told The Christian Science Monitor in May.  To Chavez, Castro is “an anti-American precursor whose footsteps he can follow, and whose built-in network of supporters around the hemisphere he can take over when Castro passes on.”  Reich also calls the Castro-Chavez relationship an “axis of subversion.”

After defeating his domestic opposition in a recall referendum in August 2004, through what opponents described as a combination of fraud, bribery and coercion (and a quick certification by the Carter Center), he rapidly consolidated his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” even further.  Capitalizing on the recall victory and the democratic opposition's internal disunity and disorganization.  Chavez used his control of government institutions and state oil revenues to back dozens of his hand-picked candidates in local elections nationwide.

Disgusted with the process, most Venezuelans did not even vote.  The government's national election council, CNE, said the abstention rate was slightly more than 55 percent, but private political analysts estimated that in places it was closer to 70 percent.  Several of Chavez' so-called elections were won this way.

The result? Chavez loyalists swept the October and regional municipal elections, giving him even greater national political control and helping him consolidate all the autonomous municipal police forces.  In Caracas, the new pro-Chavez mayor, Juan Barreto, named Alberto Carias as his deputy secretary of urban security, placing him in charge of the Caracas Metropolitan Police, the second largest armed force in the country.  Yet Carias is a questionable candidate.  He was arrested in the 1970's, when as a member of an urban guerilla group in Caracas he planted a bomb in a church and later killed a policeman.

He also was involved with the Tupamaros, a criminal vigilante group in Caracas, before participating in Chavez' failed coup attempt in 1992, when he was again jailed.  More recently Carias has been a member of irregular armed civilian groups known as Bolivarian Circles, created by the Chavez government to intimidate and attack the opposition.  It is never a good sign when former terrorists are given responsibility for urban security.

Following his electoral victories, Chavez passed a draconian “social responsibility in TV and radio” law, effectively muzzling the press, and a land-reform law empowering the state to confiscate “idle” property, which he promptly began enforcing.  Few of these measures were challenged by the courts since most have been co-opted by Chavez, and in 2004 he essentially seized control of the Supreme Court by packing it with a dozen additional “Chavista” judges loyal to him.

Some argue that Chavez Bolivarian Revolution is not yet truly socialist since much of the Venezuelan economy is still in private hands.  Yet according to the Miami Herald, nearly 7,000 firms – more than half the country's industrial sector – have recently closed, and billions of dollars in capital have left Venezuela.  Chavez may be heeding Castro's advice to avoid his early mass expropriations in Cuba while simply encouraging the private economy to wither as he consolidates all political and military power.

Now Chavez has begun the incremental nationalization of the remaining private sector.  In fact, on July 15, broadcasting his weekly “Hello President” television show live from a newly worker-run cacao processing plant, he announced plans to expropriate 136 privately owned companies that have been closed down by their owners in order to reopen them under “worker's management.”

Meanwhile, emboldened by his successes, Chavez is rapidly accelerating the country's revolutionary transformation in other areas.  A major step toward absolute power is his massive arms buildup, politicization of the armed forces and militarization of Venezuelan society.

Massive Military Build-Up.  According to various news reports, Chavez could be provoking a massive regional arms race with his plans to purchase 50 advanced MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighters, 40 attack and transport helicopters and 100,000 advanced AK assault rifles form Russia.  From Spain, he has ordered four naval frigates and an unspecified number of battle tanks, and from Brazil two dozen Tucano ground-attack aircraft.

Some intelligence sources speculate China and Cuba also may be secretly transferring additional military hardware to Chavez.  Conversely, some of Venezuela's new arms also could be used to upgrade Castro's deteriorating forces.  A Cuban base for Chavez 90 miles from the United States gives him even greater reach throughout the Caribbean basin while providing Castro added security lost since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In order to limit the threat of a military coup, Chavez initially degraded the previously professional Venezuelan Armed Forces (FAN), slashing defense spending by more than 40 percent and purging much of the officer corps.  More recently Chavez has begun augmenting, or supplanting, the 100,000-member regular FAN – army, navy and air force – with a new 2-million-man “national reserve” reporting directly to him.  This reserve already numbers 30,000 and should reach 100,000 by the end of 2006.
This politicized force – along with tens of thousands of armed civilians organized in people's militias, popular defense units and “Bolivarian Circles” – form part of a new Chavez military doctrine.  Adopted from the Cuban security doctrine of “popular war,” it is aimed ostensibly at an imagined – and far-fetched – US threat.

Gen. Melvin Lopez Hidalgo, secretary of the Venezuelan National Defense Council, explain that this new doctrine is designed to defend against a US invasion to seize control of the country's oil and gas reserves.  According to , Venezuelan military sources describes the new national defense plan as consisting of “Iraqi-style guerilla attacks” against US troops by combined forces of conventional FAN personnel, military reservists and “popular defense units.”  More realistically, this militarization can be seen primarily as a tool for domestic mass mobilization and repression.

A European military attaché in Caracas who says Venezuela's total military forces are growing rapidly and easily could reach 300,000 by 2007, according to  The new reserves could be equipped with the Belgian FAL 7.62 mm assault rifles, which have been the FAN's standard infantry weapon for 40 years.  More than 100,000 of these rifles may be transferred to the reservists as the new Russian AK assault rifles arrive.

The Chavez military buildup is part of a broader strategy seen previously with Castro in Cuba and later with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Though Chavez' military build-up may not constitute a direct threat to the United States, he could threaten US security interests throughout the hemisphere.  Colombia, America's strongest ally in South America, would especially be at risk if tensions between Caracas and Bogota were to ignite again.  Beyond that, Chavez is positioning himself to project power regionally and intimidate neighbors while defending the regime against any reprisal attacks.

Subverting Latin America. Castro's dream of spreading his socialist revolution across Latin America seemed to die with the collapse of his Soviet sponsor in 1991.  The rise of democratically elected governments in the region that promoted free-market policies in the 1980s and ‘90s also left him increasingly isolated politically.  But oil-rich Chavez, now reinforced by a handful of newly elected left-of-center presidents in South America, will be able to wage Castro's crusade against capitalism and the United States better than Castro ever could.

Six Latin American nations now have leftist presidents whose views often clash with Washington's.  Since 2001, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and most recently, Uruguay have joined Peru and Chile with left-of-center presidents.  While most of them are moderate socialists and may be wary of Castro, Chavez and his oil money are often embraced.

The power of oil cannot be underestimated.  Chavez has a “preferential treatment” agreement to subsidize oil to Central America and Caribbean countries.  As a sign of Chavez's growing regional influence, in April the Washington-backed candidate for the head of the Organization of American States- Luis Ernesto Derbez of Mexico- was defeated in favor of Chile's Jose Miguel Insulza, who was backed by Chavez.  This was correctly perceived as a rebuff of US leadership in the region and means America cannot count on the OAS to restrain Chavez.

Another leftist politician with strong anti-Washington views, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is the early favorite in next year's presidential election in Mexico.  His victory could bring the leftist, anti-US trend to the banks of the Rio Grande.

But there is more to the Castro-Chavez agenda.  Wearing his trademark red beret along with his red shirt, Chavez has expressed his adulation for Marxist murderer and terrorist Che Guevera.  He proudly sports a Che image on his red T-shirt.  It is no surprise then that the current Castro-Chavez subversion strategy for Latin America barks back to the 1960s and 1980s.  Even some of the battlefields are the same.

Bolivia and Nicaragua.  Bolivia, how of el Che's ill-fated guerilla excursion in 1967, and Nicaragua, the 1980's battleground between communist Sandinistas and anti-communist Contras, seem to be the immediate targets of the renewal Castro-Chavez subversion.  Today, rather than armed revolution, the new strategy involves petrodollar financed political destabilization.

In Bolivia, leftist indigenous groups headed by radicals such as Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, promoting increased coca cultivation and nationalization of energy resources, have been battling the country's democratic forces for years with strikes and protests.  But the equation has changed, since now they are reportedly being funded and aided by Chavez and Castro.  According to the former Bolivian defense minister, the Venezuelan military attaché was caught passing large quantities of money to Morales' party in 2003.  Morales also has visited Castro in Havana.

By 2005, these groups had succeeded in removing several elected presidents through protests and civil strife, the latest being President Carlos Mesa in June.  Meanwhile, “advisors” from Colombia's communist guerilla/terrorist group, FARC, also have been apprehended while operating in Bolivia.

Beyond Bolivia, Morales, reportedly aided by Chavez, is regionalizing his Movement Toward Socialism party by creating a mirror party in Peru.  Morales, the self-proclaimed leader of all Latin American indigenous people, could also use satellite parties in countries such as Peru to whip up coordinated protests and revolts by nationalist indigenous groups and coca growers.

In Nicaragua, the Marxist Sandinistas – never purged from the Ministries of Defense and interior or the courts – are making a political comeback through an alliance with the party of disgraced former president Arnoldo Aleman, currently serving a sentence for corruption.  It appears the Sandinistas hope to retake Nicaragua by subversion rather than outright force.

The Sandinistas-Aleman alliance is already proving a threat to US national security: it has prevented the elected government of President Enrique Bolanos from destroying old Soviet SA-7 portable surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down commercial aircraft.  In 2004, Bolanos promised then-Secretary of State Colin Powell destruction of the missiles, but this has been blocked by anti-US influences.  Meanwhile Bolanos is facing a coordinated campaign by the Sandinistas and Aleman allies to impeach him on trumped up charges.

The Castro-Chavez axis is a clear and present danger to the United States and its democratic allies in the hemisphere.  Reich noted that “with the combination of Castro's evil genius, experience in political warfare and economic desperation, and Chavez' unlimited money and recklessness, the peace of the region is in peril.  The first task of the United States, and whatever coalition of the willing it can muster in the region is to confront the dangerous alliance.”  This should be a US priority.

Paul Crespo is an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.  A former Marine Corps intelligence officer, he served as a military attaché at the US embassy in Caracas in 1997.  He also is a columnist, host of a political talk-show in Miami, and teacher of US and world politics at the University of Miami.