- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
The separation between the military and politics is a delicate matter in most Western democracies. In the United States, active members of the military participate in their democratic process, but within certain limits. While they can vote or attend rallies when not in uniform, they are not allowed to participate in political meetings or fundraising events in uniform. The same is true in most other countries where the military is unambiguously under civilian control.
Venezuela used to be one of these countries … until recently.
Last week, in a stunning ruling, the nation’s highest court re-wrote the constitution to allow the military to actively participate in rallies and gatherings supporting a political party: the government’s. The ruling dramatically erodes what is left of democracy, bringing Venezuela back to its nineteenth-century roots when warlords ruled the land.
The Venezuelan Constitution clearly establishes the military as a non-partisan entity. According to Articles 328 and 330, active service members "have a right to vote," but they cannot participate in "acts of propaganda or political partisanship, and they cannot proselytize."
This, apparently, is not clear enough for Venezuela’s highest court. In complete opposition to the text, the court ruled that active military participation in partisan acts "is a high water-mark for democratic participation." The ruling goes on to hail the use of the military in partisan activities as "a progressive act geared toward the consolidation of civilian-military union."
The ruling came as a response to a lawsuit from a group of retired generals. Back in March, the defense minister ordered several military units to participate in a political rally in favor of President Nicolás Maduro. The generals sued the government, claiming this was unconstitutional.
The court rejected the argument. The ruling basically sets into law what has been a fact in chavista Venezuela: that the military is the armed faction of the governing party.
Military rule under civilian guise is not new. Many countries in the Middle East and Asia have used this form of government from time to time, and some, such as Egypt, continue on this path.
Yet Latin America had broken the trend. After the end of the continent’s brutal military dictatorships, there was a clear consensus that civilians had to control the military, and that military participation in politics was a bad idea, something that had to be constrained and regulated.
This was particularly important for Venezuela, which has only had civilian governments for the last fifty years. Before then, a succession of military dictators and warlords ruled the land.
This trend rose as a consequence of the wars of independence, which were fought by private armies of peasants under the command of wealthy landowners. After the colonies gained independence from Spain, these groups fought each other to obtain power, and so the Venezuelan Republic was born.
Keeping the military impartial was an important part of Venezuela’s democracy. The military guards all elections in Venezuela, doing everything from manning voting centers to handling voting material. They are also charged with ensuring safety in and around voting centers. Now that they are part of the governing party, how can anyone in the opposition be sure that results will be respected? Asking the military to take care of elections is like asking your dog to guard a stash of freshly cooked bacon.
Venezuela’s independence hero, Simón Bolívar, once allegedly described Caracas as "a garrison."
The Liberator, as he is known to all Venezuelans, was onto something. The military have always felt entitled to play kingmakers in the country’s politics. Now, the nation’s courts have made this perfectly legal.