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During the colonial era, Spain employed only a small army in the area later known as Venezuela. It relied primarily on an elaborate militia system that recruited members of the local population to maintain public order and guard against foreign attack. Militiamen generally were not professional soldiers; they held civilian occupations and met for drill on Sundays, for monthly inspections, and to keep watch on their local communities perhaps one evening a month. The militiamen received a token salary from the crown; service in the militia, however, represented a source of prestige, primarily because of the fuero militar (military privilege), which exempted all active militiamen from criminal or civil prosecution and from certain taxes and community work assignments that were obligatory for other citizens.

By 1810 the colony had several thousand active militiamen. These men provided the bulk of the armed force for the independence struggle against Spain that occupied Venezuela for the next twenty years. Many thousands lost their lives as Venezuelans played a dominant role in winning the independence not only of their own future country, but also of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. This achievement and the Venezuelan origins of several of the greatest leaders of the revolutionary period--including Francisco de Miranda, Simón Bolívar, and José Antonio Páez--remained sources of national pride for most Venezuelans (see The Epic of Independence , ch. 1).

The militiamen made themselves into a regular army during the independence struggle. After 1830, however, a wave of antimilitary sentiment led to the army's being relegated to a small and comparatively unimportant local security force, a status it retained until the twentieth century. For the bulk of the nineteenth century, successive governments reverted to the old colonial militia system to provide the nation's primary armed force. The nineteenth century was the age of the caudillo in Latin America, and in no other country was caudillismo (rule by local strongmen, or caudellos) more pronounced than in Venezuela (see A Century of Caudillismo , ch. 1). Despite its militaristic trappings, however, caudillismo in Venezuela was more a manifestation of personalistic loyalties than martial aspirations. The employment of personal armies by caudillos rendered the regular standing army superfluous. In 1872 the federal troops were dismissed entirely.

Venezuela did not reestablish a truly professional army until World War II. The transition, however, began under Cipriano Castro (president, 1898-1908). Although otherwise a mediocre and ineffective caudillo, Castro made one important contribution to Venezuelan politics; he established, on a permanent basis, a central authority with sufficient strength to resist all regional challenges to its existence. Whereas earlier caudillos had viewed the development of a strong national army as a threat to their personal control over the country, Castro recognized that a professional armed force could function as an effective guarantor of presidential rule. Among his innovations were the creation of a general staff and a chain of command that extended to the commanders of each state and local contingent. Castro charged these commanders to force local caudillos to submit to his authority. The national army granted commissions to most of those who pledged their loyalty, and defeated those who resisted. Castro also established the Military Academy in Caracas, at least on paper, in 1903. The academy did not open until 1910, however, two years after Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-35) seized power from an ailing Castro.

Gómez built on the military policies established by Castro. Although the opening of the academy, the introduction of foreign military training missions, and the procurement of modern armaments brought progress in the development of professional military capabilities, Gómez's most significant achievement was the abolition of the militia system via a 1919 decree. That act signaled the end of the age of caudillismo and the beginning of the age of Venezuelan militarism. Without a militia, soldiers could gain power only from within the ranks of the national army.

Although he improved the capabilities of the army, Gómez never intended to establish a truly professional, apolitical force. Rather, Gómez's army served to enforce the preeminence of the traditional elite by preserving order, quelling opposition, and breaking strikes. After the oil industry became established, Gómez used some of its revenues to purchase modern matériel for the army in order to help preserve a climate of domestic security conducive to continued and expanded foreign investment. The bulk of the increased revenue from oil, however, went not to the army, but to Gómez himself.

After Gómez's death in 1935, Venezuela was ruled first by his minister of war, General Eleazar López Contreras (president, 1936-41), then by López's minister of war, General Isaías Medina Angarita (president, 1941-45). Both of these presidents encouraged the military to move away from direct involvement in politics and toward a more professional role, namely the defense of the country's borders and the maintenance of public order (see The Transition to Democratic Rule , ch. 1). Castro had first brought foreign military missions to Venezuela in the late nineteenth century; succeeding governments maintained this tradition. Venezuelan officers also began to study abroad, in military academies in Peru, France, and the United States. The military also established social welfare measures during this period, as well as a mutual aid fund for officers. Military equipment purchases also modernized the services from a technical aspect. The officer corps, however, continued to be dominated by officers from the Andean state of Táchira, the home state of Castro, Gómez, López, and Medina. This cliquishness rewarded origins more than professional competence, to the detriment of the corps as a whole.

It was not until near the end of the Medina regime that for the first time a maximum retirement age was set for all military personnel. But the action came too late; such tardy half-measures toward professionalizing the military provoked resentment among junior officers, which eventually split the military. In mid- 1945, junior officers founded a secret lodge, the Patriotic Military Union (Unión Patriótica Militar--UPM), which endorsed the establishment of democratic representative government in Venezuela, supported by an apolitical military. One of the principal founders of the UPM was Marcos Pérez Jiménez, then a captain. Other prominent figures were Majors Carlos Delgado Chalbaud and Julio Vargas.

The UPM conspired with members of the political party Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD) to bring about this new order. Thus, after the successful military rebellion of October 18, 1945, the seven-man ruling junta was made up of four adecos (AD members), two military officers, and one independent. Major Delgado was the senior officer on the junta. The leading figure on the junta, however, was AD leader Rómulo Betancourt. Rómulo Gallegos, who was not a junta member, ran for and won the presidency in 1947 on the AD ticket.

During the trienio of civilian rule, the military enjoyed relative autonomy in dealing with its own institutional affairs. In turn, officers did not involve themselves in social or economic policy making or in routine political decisions. Nevertheless, the armed forces were among the principal beneficiaries of the 1945 rebellion; from 1945 to 1947, the defense budget tripled, salaries rose dramatically, and matériel procurements increased substantially. Enrollment in the Military Academy more than doubled, and a large United States military mission arrived, making the United States the major foreign influence on the Venezuelan military. The navy was reorganized and the air force was granted autonomy from the army. The young officers now in charge also decided to cashier all officers who had attained ranks above major before the 1945 rebellion, thus leaving room for professionally trained officers to fill the upper ranks.

Despite these concessions and considerations, the AD government proved unable to retain the loyalty of the military. The primary point of conflict between the two camps was the pursuit by AD of what the military leadership considered to be radical social reforms. Many officers also resented AD's active recruiting efforts among the officer corps. When Betancourt floated the idea of establishing a party militia, the military moved directly to preempt this challenge to its authority. The nearly bloodless coup of November 24, 1948, ousted Gallegos and AD from power.

A three-man provisional military junta, headed by Major Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, who had served as defense minister during the trienio, assumed power. Allegedly hesitant to repeat the mistakes of 1945 by hastily reestablishing a civilian government, the provisional government gave increasing signals of its intention to establish a permanent military regime. In November 1950, a band of thugs dragged the more molerate Delgado from his home and murdered him. His successor, Caracas lawyer Germán Suárez Flamerich, served as a figurehead for Pérez Jiménez.

The elections of November 1952 removed any facade of legitimacy from the Pérez Jiménez regime (see The Triumph of Democracy , ch. 1). After balloting marked by clumsy fraud on the part of the regime, had himself declared president. No longer directing affairs from behind the scenes, Pérez made no pretense of ruling democratically. Having no political constituency, he ruled in the name of and on behalf of the military. Officers received tremendous salary increases; new and exotic arms were purchased; and the luxurious Officers Club (Circulo de las Fuerzas Armadas) was built in Caracas at a cost equivalent to millions of United States dollars to raise the military's morale.

Pérez ruled in particularly brutal fashion. The regime strictly censored the press and set up an intricate spy network to seek out and punish those suspected of disloyalty. The National Security Police (Seguridad Nacional--SN) became increasingly powerful and threatening to the integrity of the armed forces as they arrested more and more military officers. In a further effort to consolidate his power, Pérez, a native of Táchira, distributed key posts in the government and the military on the basis of personal loyalty rather than professional merit-- a throwback to the old days of the tachirense (native of the state of Táchira) clique, but even more insidious in its debilitating effect on the military institution. Once again, junior officers grew to resent the incompetence, corruption, and brutality of their superiors. By showing favoritism to the army, Pérez also alienated air force and naval officers. It was these factions within the officer corps that led to military rebellion against Pérez in 1958. Although initially unsuccessful, the rebellion led by the air force triggered widespread popular unrest that brought other elements of the armed forces into the anti-Pérez coalition. The dictator fled the country on January 23, 1958.

The five-man provisional military-civilian junta that emerged under the leadership of Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal guided the country directly toward what was now clearly the will of the people: a freely elected civilian government. Despite numerous revolts among the armed forces, the junta organized elections that culminated in Rómulo Betancourt's election to the presidency on December 7, 1958. Betancourt's inauguration on February 13, 1959, was a line of demarcation in Venezuelan history between centuries of military dominance and the modern era of civilian democratic rule.

Initially, the Betancourt government faced considerable active opposition from within the armed forces. Right-wing officers, disenchanted with liberal civilian rule, attempted coups on several different occasions, and twice in 1962 officers and enlisted men of the Infantria de Marina (Marine Infantry) left-wing launched unsuccessful rebellions. Such activities eventually subsided, however. The government of Raúl Leoni (president, 1964-69) saw only one small uprising by army officers loyal to Pérez. During periods of political crisis, rumors periodically circulated in Venezuela that the military was preparing to take power. After the 1960s, however, these rumors appear to have been without foundation. By 1990 the democratic order appeared to be well established.

Although the armed forces shunned a direct role in the nation's politics, they continued to act as a powerful pressure group, lobbying in their own corporate self-interest. Their primary concerns included the protection of their share of the national budget, the security of the country's borders, the maintenance of internal order, the operation of the police, and the development of an indigenous military industry. It was in these areas that the civilian government had to consult with and secure the approval of the armed forces leadership before proceeding with any major changes in policy.

Data as of December 1990


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