By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's military could end up being the decisive power broker in Sunday's presidential vote, especially if President Hugo Chavez stumbles in his fight to stay in power against the most formidable foe he's faced.
Chavez has spent nearly 14 years consolidating control over state institutions, but ultimately only the military has the clout to determine who prevails if the election results are close and disputed.
The opposition contends Chavez has already been employing the military in a political role, in violation of the constitution. His challenger, Henrique Capriles, tweeted a photo this week showing soldiers appearing to shed olive-green fatigue tops in favor of the red T-shirts worn by the "Chavistas" who crowd the president's rallies.
"In my government nobody will be obliged to don the T-shirt of a political party, least of all our soldiers!" Capriles wrote, emphasizing the military's potentially crucial postelection role.
The information ministry didn't respond to requests for comment on the claim by the opposition, which has long voiced concerns about Chavez packing the military leadership with loyalists.
"The armed forces will be the key arbiter of the election process," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. He said that will be especially true if Capriles manages to eke out a narrow victory and Chavez's side resists.
Chavez's own history shows how crucial, and divided, the military can be.
As a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, he led a failed 1992 coup attempt that catapulted him to fame. A decade later, after he was pardoned and elected president, some officers joined in a plot that ousted Chavez in 2002 for two days. Both times, the coup failed because the bulk of the military refused to join.
Before that, the last successful military rebellion was in 1958, when troops backing a popular revolt ousted President Marcos Perez Jimenez, who had seized power in a coup. It was an era when coups were common across Latin America. There is little tolerance for them now.
Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters' choice.
The chairman of Venezuela's joint chiefs, Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television last month that the military would "heed the constitution and respect the will of the people" in Sunday's vote.
But some Chavistas in the military high command haven't been acting impartially as another six-year term for their boss hangs in the balance.
The defense minister, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, has been on state-run TV all week, here touring a remodeled military hospital, there touting auto repair shops that he said the government plans to create under partial military control.
In late 2010, Rangel angered many Venezuelans by saying neither the military nor the public would accept an opposition election victory over Chavez. The president later defended the general.
Rangel made headlines again this week with a claim that Capriles plans to dismantle the armed forces.
Capriles, a center-left former governor, had just announced that he had chosen an active general, whom he did not identify, to be his defense minister.
That indicated the military leadership is not entirely in lockstep with Chavez's populist rule, which human rights groups say has consistently violated the civil liberties of its foes.
A recently retired senior general who supports the opposition told The Associated Press that dozens of officers, including generals, remain on active duty but without assigned jobs, effectively shunted aside in favor of Chavez's political loyalists
"There's great turmoil in the institution," said the retired officer, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name, because he feared reprisals from the government.
He said Capriles' camp has been holding secret meetings with active-duty officers at which "batteries are removed from cellphones" so eavesdroppers can't listen in.
Rocio San Miguel, president of the independent military watchdog group Control Ciudadano, said Capriles' announcement "unleashed a witch hunt to try to determine" which of the 500 generals and admirals was anointed.