Solidarity Brigade to Caracas

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Venezuelan military on a mission

First, an apology for tardiness in reporting. We´ve been on the run from place to place, and internet has been hard to get hold of.
Secondly, a big cheers from the industrial heartland of the revolution, replete with extreme conditions and mad drivers.

On Tuesday afternoon (August 2), braving the dust, heat and humidity, Brigada Primera (minus some casualties who were preparing to make an in-depth, undercover, investigation of Barrio Adentro) made it´s way to the least likely place- the barracks of the 5th Infantry Division at the military base in Ciudad Bolivar- to find out what role the military is playing in the Bolivarian process. After the ususal protocols, we eventually sat down to interview Major Ricardo Manzana (Jungle Infantry) about the army and the revolution.

Manzana admitted early on that he had in fact taken part in military training 2 years ago in the US (NOT in the School of the Americas), but that any military co-operation between the two countries had now ceased (late last year I think). Originally from Maracaibo, Manzana has been in the military for over two decades, in periods when the army had played a less than helpful role in society. Nevertheless, he seemed astounded to discover that the army in Australia was not a progressive force in society, as it is in Venezuela within the Bolivarian Revolution.

According to Manzana, members of the army are in charge of each of the missions, assisting with the administration of the services provided- from the literacy campaign of Mision Robinson to the medical help of Barrio Adentro, as well as Mision Milagro, the campaign to restore eyesight to those with treatable impairment by treatment in Cuba. About 50 percent of the military´s time is spent working in the missions.

In contrast to the military in Australia, the Venezuelan army is playing a supportive role in the process of profound social change, but Manzana also made it clear that the army is an apolitical organisation. Soldiers have no right to organise or argue politically within the army, run in elections or to be members of political parties (they can, of course, vote). This means that while almost all soldiers support Chavez, it is difficult to gauge how many don´t.
Also, while this limitation is to ensure the neutrality of the armed wing of the state, making it an effective tool at this stage of the revolution, it also means that should a counter-revolutionary force enter power in the future, the army would be bound to follow orders, even to the detriment of the people. Fortunately, given the support Chavez and the revolution have within the army, and within society in general, this is not a likely circumstance.

There is, however, an alternative force taking shape within society, in the form of the Reserve and people´s militias. These are sections of the population (target is approximately 2 million at the moment) that are given regular military training on weekends by the army, and, unlike the soldiers, are allowed to be involved in the politicial process as outright protagonists. Most importantly, they are recruited by the army through their work in the social missions.

The fact that defence training is being given to some of the most active and political participants in the political process is reassuring, as it is a step towards the full empowerment of the working class. Despite the fact that they have no immediate access to government arms (1 in 4 Venezuelans are armed anyway), these people are being well trained to protect the revolution- first-and-foremostly by deepening the Bolivarian Revolution in their mission work in the barrios; secondly by being able to defend the process against it´s critics- in what Cuba´s Fidel Castro calls the "Battle of Ideas"; and thirdly by being trained to defend it in the unfortunate, and hopefully unlikely, case of a violent attack.

This training is part of Chavez´ longterm strategy- that of creating a "people under arms", where the army and people are more or less one and the same, and are equally capable of defending their collective dignity, justice and social rights. Recently, some parts of the police forces in Venezuela have come under heavy criticism for supporting the opposition, acts of violence (including murdering students) and other criminal behaviour. Chavez´ response was that if the police cannot reform, they should be dissolved and the people could take their place. From some people´s experience in Caracas in particular, this could not come too soon.

Major Manzana finally offered us 2 hours of training in the evening, but (un)fortunately most of the Brigadistas became distracted by the Mision Milagro participants who were waiting to be flown to Cuba for treatment. Perhaps another time, or another place...

hasta siempre



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