The Military and the Revolution

[Translated by Alejandro Palavecino and Susan Nerberg.  This interview was originally published October 2002, but we find it as current as ever and that provides depth and context that is given nowhere else.  It is quite long, an excerpt from a book, and so it is broken up into two parts.  Part II is here.]

The Bolivarian Revolution of President Chávez is being threatened by a new coup d’état. The opposition has rejected the conciliatory spirit and the space for dialogue generously opened by the government, interpreting this gesture as a weakness. The neighbourhoods of the wealthy have started to arm themselves. On Tuesday, June 11, the opposition gathered 80,000 to 100,000 people in Caracas. A week later they started hitting pots and pans in the upscale neighbourhoods. They are preparing a new strike backed by the business sector. They accuse Chávez of corruption and the attorney-general of the republic of being partial. Rumors are creating an atmosphere of destabilization. The media are once again playing the protagonist role in the preparation of the environment for the coup.

Meanwhile, Chávez remains unprovoked. He knows he has popular support and that he is able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people all over the country. His motto has been to organize the mass of people that expressed its voice in the streets on April 12, 13 and 14. He does not miss a single opportunity to call for the creation of Bolivarian Circles of the most diverse type. He knows that when people are organized and not unarmed-they count on the support of the majority of the Armed Forces-they are invincible.

We think that in the text we provide below we can understand why the Venezuelan leader is so optimistic despite the betrayal of a meaningful number of members of the high ranks within the Armed Forces.

This text is the translation of Chapter III from Marta Harnecker’s book: Entrevista a Hugo Chávez Frías, Un hombre un pueblo.


Many times I have had to defend you against those who criticize you for having surrounded yourself by the military. I understand the anguish of the leader of a government who must make swift decisions to fundamental problems but who cannot count on a state apparatus adequate to the circumstances. I think this is what has driven you to look for support from the military. But then it seems that there is a contradiction between the fact that the main executors of the most important tasks of the revolutionary process are the military and the fact that this process is conceived as one in which the sovereign people exercise power through participation in all areas. I understand that the military is often efficient and disciplined, but it’s not accustomed to delegating power, it’s not prepared to make people participate. 

 I have heard, that in this sense, Plan Bolívar 2000 has meant many good things for the people: roads, schools, houses, which are concrete solutions, but they are solutions that come from above without people’s participation.

 On the other hand, I’m convinced that participation cannot be decreed; people need to learn how to participate. It’s a slow cultural-transformation process. We have a video that refers to the slow, hard work necessary to reach this transformation; it has to be done and it’s necessary to have the cadres who facilitate this task. What can you say about this?

Let’s suppose that that criticism-which I have heard before even in party meetings-is completely true, in the sense that the soldiers only know how to give and execute orders but are not inclined to participation. Which is not really true.I am the first military of that group. I feel that since by youth my orientation was participation and I had wonderful experiences when I was commander of some remote units, especially in small towns where, with the soldiers, we launched participatory actions that were very good lessons and that conflicted with the local political power: How is it that this soldier gets involved in people’s affairs, fixing roads and engaging in sports with them. This is not my tendency alone. If that were the case I would have clashed with a closed military structure, authoritarian and non-participatory, and would not have lasted for too long in the army.


Now, you are right when you are saying that you understand that there are so many soldiers in my government. Imagine February 2, 1999, with almost all of the gobernaciones and municipalities even more than opponents: adversaries (99.99%); the Congress against; the Supreme Court against; we received a budget that was already decided; a government almost without resources to pay salaries; the price of oil was at seven dollars; on top of  this, an immense level of expectations generated by our triumph: around the Palace there were lines of thousands of people asking for jobs, with their sick kids, sleeping there, on the ground, not letting my car pass,  “We are not leaving until Chávez hears us.” To all of this one has to add a party structure engaged in the political struggle: the new constitution was coming, all of that was coming. Then I decided to use  the Armed Forces. I believe that without the participation of the military in the social area, Plan Bolívar 2000 (initiated in 1999 and continuing in 2000), the process would not have advanced in its political arena as quickly as it did.


This is how Plan Bolívar 2000 was born, a civil-military plan.

My order was: “Go house to house combing the terrain. The enemy. Who is the enemy? Hunger.” And we started it on February 27, 1999, ten years after the Caracazo, as a way of vindicating the military. I even used the contrast and I said: “Ten years ago we came out to massacre the people, now we are going to fill them with love. Go and comb the terrain, look for misery. The enemy is death. We are going to fill them with bursts of life instead of gun shots of death.” And, in truth, the answer was really beautiful.
194 . While we, the politicians, were engaged in the political struggle, 40,000 soldiers were on a campaign to attend to the health of the people; opening roads with military engineering equipment; flying passengers in military planes to the most poor areas, charging them at cost.


I told each one of them: “Show me your plan based on your resources and capacity.” And each component of the Armed Forces started outlining its plan. The Air Force and its plan of social routes: helicopters and military planes flying where no roads existed with passengers who carried their chickens and little boxes. The seamen and Plan Pescar 2000: they have been there, involved with the fishermen, organizing co-operatives, repairing iceboxes and refrigerators, giving them courses, etc. We gave the National Guard the task of mainly protecting the citizens and controlling delinquency, but also programs all over the country, even in indigenous areas that had previously never been served. I hope you can go there. There are things that seem like miracles, without denying improvisations and even corruption in some of the military, especially in the higher ranks, and the sabotage of the opposition. But the kids have developed an impressive social conscience.


The Guard started to invent Plan Casiquiare 2000. (Casiquiare is a river in the jungle, which is inhabited by thousands of indigenous people.) They even built a boat to go from village to village, bringing medicines and doctors to examine children and vaccinate people; building houses with the indigenous people, but according to what the indigenous people wanted and not according to what we thought.


Then, things like Barranco Yopal and Caravali started to arise with the Cuiva and Yaruro peoples. Many years ago I used to go to Barranco Yopal, taking with me sheet metal and poles to the natives, because with those materials they built winter huts, which they left during the summer. They were nomads: hunters and gatherers, as they have been for five hundred years. I saw native women give birth there, squatting on a hill, throwing away the placenta and cleaning the baby, and then kept walking. Most of the children died of malaria, tuberculosis or any other type of disease. They were violated; they were drunk most of the time in the village. The native women prostituted themselves. Many times they were raped. They were ghosts, scorned by most of the population. They sometimes stole in order to eat. They did not have the notion of private property; for them, to enter a place and grab a pig for food because they were hungry was not considered robbery. But what did I see there now? The soldiers with an agricultural technician and their capacity of mobilization: vehicles, equipment, organization,  promptness; but with the natives, with the native capitanes74 leading, wearing a cap with a sign reading “Plan Bolívar.” The soldiers carried the materials, helped them with some engineering personnel and soldiers more than anything, while the natives outlined the houses and worked building their schools and houses.

To whom did it occur that the community should participate and not only receive?

To the soldiers and some civil advisors: an agricultural technician, an engineer. Plan Bolívar has not only been military, each garrison has contracted civilian technicians who know their work.

Well, then, those natives were happy, their faces changed. They took me to see their crops. On only four hectares they were producing sugar cane, watermelons, bananas, corn, papayas. They were eating well and now they were asking for a truck to take their produce to the village to sell it. They had already received small boats with motors and training in their use because before they used to fish with harpoons, with spears from the shore of small rivers. I went fishing with them a couple of times. They used to fish with their bare hands or with big stones. That community was resuscitated.

Once I gave a speech in that region. I used a sentence from Zarathustra. That time I said: “Fifteen years ago I came here and I saw you with your ashes. Now I am back and I see you with your fire.”


There you also have Plan Wasp, which is an awakening of participation. General García Carneiro invented this plan. One day he came to me with this plan. “What is this? People will be vaccinated?” “No, my friend. They, on their isolated plots of land, will build their own houses.” “Explain that to me.” And they showed me some illustrations. “Look how they used to live,” he said and showed me the photograph of a family standing in front of a hut made out of wooden poles and sheet metal. “And look two months later. The same family, now happier, with a house.” Who built that house? The community. While a private company builds one of those houses for ten million bolívares, Plan Wasp does it for three million. Why? Because it is the community that builds the houses. And that, at the same time, allows us to reactivate employment. The soldiers obtained some machines to make building blocks and they give courses with civilian technicians and masons. They also make wooden doors. With INCE (National Institute of Educational Cooperation)-to which I appointed a retired general who is a very demanding and extremely efficient man; I know him well because he was my teacher-they were able to build 40 ambulatory classrooms75 for technical education. If the portables did not have tires, or if they were dismantled, we gave them money to repair them. We obtained credit from Spain for new equipment and such. Now we have all those portables rolling across the country. They arrive in a place; they give their courses and teach people how to make doors. Then, together they make the doors, the building blocks, the roof tiles and build the houses. Corruption is minimal. We can’t say zero, but it is decreasing significantly.

Where did this come from? From the heart of Plan Bolívar and certainly not only from the military, but from those soldiers who are in contact with reality, from the soldier who understands that resources are not enough to build houses and asks himself what to do. People begin to talk, to calculate, and from that interchange Plan Wasp is born.


In a place, some soldiers finished the lanes of a highway that was about 20 years in stagnation. The budget to finish it with asphalt and everything that was needed was around 5 billion bolívares. With the military machinery and the military engineers, they were able to complete the job with only 1.5 billion. That means, the cost of many of the works-housing, highways, bridges, roads that nobody had been able to use-went down. A gigantic operation was done.


And regarding health, let’s not even talk about it! A formidable voluntary medical network was organized. Operations involving surgical war hospitals begun, I mean the social war. There were lines of people. Once, in a town named Zaraza, soldiers and civilians from Plan Bolívar operated on more people-eye operations, leg operations-than the hospital of that town had performed in the previous 10 years. A very impressive performance! I remember that once one of those kids said, “You have to see how beautiful is to give back the eyesight to an old man and see him crying out of happiness, and hear him saying, ‘To think that I believed that I was going to die without seeing the blue sky again.’ That is what makes us happy. We feel that we are useful.” This contact with the people unleashed a flow of feelings and desire to participate.


The governor of the State of Cojedes-a large prairie state south of Caracas, almost at the centre of the country-is a lieutenant-colonel of the National Guard, who had no participation in any of the uprisings. He was the military chief of Plan Bolívar in that state right at the moment of the constitutional process. When the election process for governor started, he came to me one day and said: “Look, President, I want to ask for my resignation.” “Why, muchacho, you are only a lieutenant-colonel?” “Well, the parties of the revolution here are asking me to be gubernatorial candidate in order to defeat the adecos.” “Are you sure about that?” As a result, after a few days I received a letter signed by the MVR and other leaders of the leftist parties from that state. With his candidacy we even solved a problem there that seemed to have no solution: the internal divisions. This kid was able to bring them all together, we won the elections, and now he is governor. He revealed himself as a leader. Of course, he and his guards spent a lot of time in the villages, in the countryside, serving the people and that how they started to view him as a leader. There are many cases like this one. I have mentioned only a few.

And look, many political leaders have not reached the stature of the soldiers and even more than one resentment has arisen, because at the time of the leadership they found themselves surpassed by kids who learned the technique of leadership as I already told you.


There are many good examples but, however, we also have a few bad ones. But the accumulation of the good ones is marvellous and exceeds the errors and defects of some people and irregular actions. These last ones were sent to the auditor-general’s office for investigation. The auditor-general of the republic told me a few days ago that he has detected that Plan Bolívar-which started with errors-is one of the plans that has improved a lot.

What errors are you referring to?

For example, the money planned to solve one problem was used to solve another. These budgets are strictly directed: if 20 million bolívares are allocated to repair housing, it cannot be deviated for other expenses.

I remember once, a crying woman appeared from a burgeoning crowd with a child with a dislocated leg. He looked like a rag doll. A grown-up child, seven or eight years old, who couldn’t walk, and she carried him. I saw her; she impressed me immensely. I stopped, I stepped out of the car, and it wasn’t the governor who was with me but the general chief of the garrison and, at the same time, the head of Plan Bolívar. The woman told me that the child was born like that and that she had never had the resources for surgery. “Come here, general, write down the address. Send him for an operation.” Then, the surgery had to be paid. Another time it was a prosthesis that someone needed. And things like that. Someone had to pay and so they took the money from some of the budgets. Some did it out of inexperience, while others took advantage.

Then, because at the beginning the auditor-general’s office was in the hands of those opposed to my government, they started to take advantage of these situations to campaign against me.

When the denunciation erupted-“Corruption in Plan Bolívar”-I thought that they destroyed the plan. Imagine! The press, trying to destroy all our projects, came out with a list that included the names of all the soldiers supposedly corrupt. I called some of them and told them that they had to justify the expenses to the last bolívar. Then, an investigative process was undertaken: they had to find the guy with the leg, where had they paid the wooden leg made for that person. Invoice after invoice was scrutinized. That way, almost everything was justified. Some cases are pending; others, when they couldn’t justify them, were removed.


Obviously, a lot of people ended up with the first information from the press and never knew the results of the investigation. It’s terrible how baseless campaigns are launched and then, when the data gathered demonstrate the falsehood of the accusations, the media don’t publish corrections and if they do it they do it in such a small way that nobody notices.

That’s the way it is. But, anyhow, back to the Plan. The auditor-general of the republic determined that the goals of Plan Bolívar in 1999 and 2000 were accomplished to 280 per cent.

This year, for instance, we haven’t been able to allocate resources for Plan Bolívar. What they’re doing is finishing things pending from last year, like the project that we witnessed today77.


Now the Plan is in another stage, the one we call ‘entering the structure.’  There are no longer hundreds of soldiers in the streets. I already have governors, mayors, plans in action, structure. It’s no longer the government of three years ago; therefore they limit themselves to a sort of coordinators of special projects with local and regional governments. They are no longer doing things by themselves.

There are soldiers who have returned to the garrison to dedicate themselves fully to their routine activities-we had even gotten to the point of utilizing combat units-because we need combat units to train for combat: infantry battalions, submariners, paratroopers, everyone doing their training. So, a lot of these people returned to their routine functions.


We’re also organizing reservist units. What is that? We call kids who had already been in the Armed Forces, most of them unemployed youth without specialized education, without formation, to constitute cooperatives. In 2001 we organized eight thousand of those kids and they started to form cooperatives. The same idea: cooperatives, micro credits, donations of land; we have even transferred state assets that were idle in the hands of FOGADE (Guarantee Funds of Bank Deposits). When we had this phenomenal bank crisis, many bankers left, but they left a lot of assets. The state appropriated them because they were deposit guarantees. Many have been sold to recover capital, but there were still land and abandoned factories. We have been transferring them to some groups of reservists in order for them to function as reservist units, so they have military training-which hasn’t been accomplished too well because of lack of resources-and work to form cooperatives. They receive agriculture courses and start working.

This is part of Plan Bolívar: to organize the reserves-the people-and give them some instruments of work. Plan Pescar (Fishing) 2000 continues. It has already accumulated capital and established fishing cooperatives in contact with the Navy. The Navy supports them, arrives at their wharves and helps them repair engines. This is also the experience of the National Guard, working together with indigenous people at the borders.


Marta, what happened on April 12 and 13 has something to do with this civic-military process. Above and beyond the social attention, above and beyond the social participation-which could be null, little or great-that might have been at stake in Plan Bolívar and its errors, the goal has been accomplished: a civic-military alliance. On April 12, things happened that had never happened before in this country: hundreds of thousands of unarmed Venezuelans, many of them without political direction, without orientation, without a preconceived plan-our error-took to the barracks and concentrated in great numbers in front of and around them, singing the national anthem. The spoke to the soldiers and yelled to them: “¡Soldado, consciente, busca a tu presidente! Soldier, with conscience, go and find your president!” and “¡Soldado, amigo, el pueblo está contigo! Soldier, friend, the people are with you!” Not only did they go to Fort Tiuna, but also they went to many barracks in different parts of the country. Why did the people go to those barracks? Never before had something like that happened. And it wasn’t because I was there. In fact, the masses that surrounded Fort Tiuna on the third day, when it was already known that I wasn’t there, were impressive: 300,000 people or more.

This also happened in places like Maracay, where a group of soldiers from the brigade of paratroopers saw that there were people outside the barracks, but they said: “More people are needed, we need more people to join us,” and they went to the neighbourhoods. Of course, they know the leaders of the neighbourhoods and those leaders know them, because each military unit made its plan and allocated areas to themselves. Such-and-such battalion corresponded to such-and-such neighbourhood. They’ve been doing that for three years, during which time the military goes to the neighbourhoods, does patrols, builds a school or fixes a medical clinic. The military already knows that going to such neighbourhoods it is not going to be rejected, as it was before. After the February 27 massacre, for instance, to go to a poor neighbourhood a soldier had to dress as a civilian. He was taking a risk, because the people knew that the soldiers were those who had massacred them. Today, when a soldier shows up people greet him with enthusiasm and happiness.

All this reaction would not have happened without the profound contact between the army and the people. That is Mao. The water and the fish. The people are to the army what the water is to the fish. In Venezuela today we have fishes in the water and that is the reason behind the campaign against Plan Bolívar, to try to break, to fracture that unity. A good part of the soldiers are beside the people. Of course, not everybody. There are sectors of the military that are opposed; they echo the discourse of the adversaries. What is this discourse? That Chávez is going to destroy the Armed Forces. The operative capacity of the military body is affected, because now the soldiers are cleaning the sewers, in other words, degrading the plan. They clean the streets and that, on radio, in the press and on television, pinches the outside and inside too, and some soldiers echoed that. However, the response to the plan is positive: one can see them happy. Today I saw those soldiers there, in particular the one responsible for Plan Bolívar in Puerto Cruz, the captain of the Navy, Becerra, who was happy to see his school finished, the one he built with his people.

Part II: Explaining the April Coup

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