President Hugo Chavez systematically militarised Venezuelan society, from young to old. This is perhaps not too surpising when recalling that he came to power as Lieutenant Colonel Chavez in 1998, after leading a coup d’etat in 1992. It was the first time during the democratic period, which began in 1958, that a member of the armed forces was chosen as the country’s leader. Since that time there has been a progressive militarisation of the country, with a special emphasis on young people.
Starting them young
In 1981 'pre-military instruction' was added as an optional subject to the curriculum of the last two years of secondary education in public schools, prior to university. It became mandatory in both public and private education in 1999. Theoretical classes about the origins of the state and the nation from a military perspective are mixed with practical military drill, exercises in survival and military confrontation, such as describing the weapons used by the military. Sometimes putting together and dismantling a pistol can also be part of the course. One part gives a historical overview of the establishment of Venezuela as a country that has won successive military victories against different empires, i.e. history told from a military perspective, whilst another part gives classes about human rights.
An old university exclusively for the military today forms part of the system of public universities: the National Experimental Polytechnic University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA), where enrolment has grown significantly since 2004, from 2,500 students to 230,000. The students receive a militarised education with different rituals, which are more appropriate in on a military base, such as singing the national anthem before classes. UNEFA prides itself on actively contributing to the training of the National Bolivarian Military, a civil component of the Armed Forces created by Chavez’s administration. According to official figures, this 'civilian' military is made up of 13,000 men and women from all over the country. University authorities claim that students join the military voluntarily, but it is not clear if they can graduate if they refuse to participate.
To legitimise its initiatives, the Bolivarian National Military uses article 326 of the Constitution, which talks of the 'principle joint responsibility of citizens in the integral defence of the nation.' President Chavez’s government program of 2013-2019 promised 'to expand the organisation of towns for the integral defence of the country', which portends the continual, profound militarisation of society.
Another example of militarism meddling with young Venezuelan minds is the use of symbolic elements which suggest that the vertical and authoritarian model represented by the Armed Forces is the most efficient model for organising one’s life in society. Despite the civil vote of confidence in him, President Chavez became accustomed to attending official ceremonies in military uniform. The red beret, used by leaders of coup d’états and by Chavez himself, during February 1992, formed an important part of Bolivarian dress. The Paseo de Los Proceres in Caracas - a military infrastructure inaugurated in 1956 by the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez - remains a privileged site for its military marches as well as its public demonstrations in support of the government, for example, the inaugural march of the 6th Global Social Forum, which took place there in January 2006.
Not just the youth – history, violence, and space
The militarisation of youth in Venezuela is part of the general militarisation of the country and therefore needs to be put into context. Following the general tendency of Latin American countries, Venezuela is a country whose history is a succession of wars and military heroes. Of these heroes, Simon Bolivar is the towering figure, having won independence from Spain for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Four years after his death in 1830, the Venezuelan Congress began to institutionalise homage to him. He was said to have a ‘warlike’ or ‘warrior’s’ masculinity and is the model for Venezuelan men, with emphasis on maleness, valour, and patriotism. People wrongly believe that the current Venezuelan army descends from Simon Bolivar’s liberation army, but Bolívar’s army only lasted until 1870; it wasn’t until the 1930s that the modern Venezuelan army was created, by Gómez.
A new Constitution was written in 1999. One of the changes was the inclusion for the first time of military personnel’s right to vote. It also granted them other political rights, such the right to be elected to public office. Today, soldiers are ministers, governors and mayors. In the governor’s elections on 16 December 2012, where the United Socialists Party of Venezuela (PSUV) nominated candidates to twenty-three state governments of the country, twelve were in the military. Of these, eleven were elected.
In Venezuela there is a primacy of violence – symbolic or real – as a means of resolving conflicts. Victory is understood as the elimination or humiliation of the other. Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the region. Historically, management posts within the country’s police force are given to military pesonnel, and the police use military weaponry. Security operations, including the recent ‘Bicentennial Security Plan’, count heavily on the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), which is one of the four components making up the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). The serious violence in Venezuela has been categorised as a ‘low intensity war’ by different experts. Keeping oneself ‘safe’ has engendered an important change in habits and customs. People stay in their homes at night.
A 2002 law designated almost 30% of Venezuela as 'security zones' (including shores, lakes, islands and navigable rivers, areas surrounding public facilities, and any other area “considered necessary for the nation’s security and defence”). There are harsh prison sentences for anyone who violates this. There is resistance to this: in 2011 2,400 people were taken to court for participating in a protest. Most of them people were young rural leaders, union members, or students. However, resistance to militarisation of Venezuelan society more generally is scarce.
Based on his article in the upcoming WRI book provisionally-entitled 'Sowing the Seeds: The Militarisation of Youth and How to Counter It'
Translated by Paul Rankin