Small Wars Journal

Venezuela 2019 - A Cautionary Tale

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 12:04am

Venezuela 2019 - A Cautionary Tale


Max G. Manwaring


Caudillos (strong men)—including “The Liberator,” Simon Bolivar, dominated Venezuela in a succession of military and civilian governments from independence in 1821 to the election of Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez as President of the Republic in 1998.  During that period, more than 20 constitutions were drafted, promulgated, and ignored.  At the same time, more than 50 armed revolts took their toll on life and property.  Political parties meant little and political principles even less.  The modern political forces set in motion by a robust oil economy produced experiments in governance in which every enterprise in Venezuela fed off what has been called the piñata (a suspended breakable pot filled with candies for children’s parties) of the state treasury.  In these conditions governments stagnated.  They remained as closed as ever.  Meaningful socio-economic development failed to take place.  Political turmoil and violence prevailed, and the military tended to arbitrate or resolve serious disputes. 


Hugo Chavez’s reformist geo-political end-state was to develop the potential of Latin America to achieve Simon Bolivar’s dream of hemispheric political-economic integration and grandeza (i.e., greatness).  The intent was to reduce U.S. hegemony in the region, and to change the geopolitical map of the Western Hemisphere.  Sooner or later a socialistic Venezuelan political-economic system would extend throughout all of the Americas.  The operational-level movement toward achieving that geo-political objective would begin with the premise that traditional post World War II socialist and Marxist political-economic models made mistakes, but the theory remains valid.         


Chavez’ strategic-level dream depends on five operational-level concepts.  They are: 1) the idea that liberal democracy and 2) the U.S.-dominated capitalism   of the new global era are total failures.  These failures must be replaced by the Rousseauan concept of “direct” or “total” (i.e., totalitarian) democracy; and a New Socialist economy.  These were two parts of a five-part overarching political-economic model for Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.  The other three parts of the model include:  3) social programs to strengthen direct democracy; 4) maximum communications support to a given regime, and 5) a new security scheme that would ensure internal peace and harmony in the country, and eventual regional socio-political-economic-military integration.   


Additionally, the socio-economic programs enhance and encourage popular expectations regarding a substantially better life for all.  Communications facilities become propaganda mechanisms that support anti-American and Bolivarian revolutionary ideas and actions.  The Chavez security scheme also provides the foundations for a hemispheric power bloc (i.e., ALBA—the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas), and eventual regional socio-political-economic-military integration, as well as control of the Venezuelan national territory and the people in it.


Note that everything and everyone is responsible only to the President of the Republic.  Note also that there seems to be no consideration of the need for a well-organized and disciplined political party to play the unifying and harmonizing role of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (democratic centralism).  And, there appears to be no consideration of the need for any kind of bureaucratic reform to facilitate the efficiency and modernization of governance.  This takes us to the fact that the only organized and disciplined entity in Venezuela capable of administration and governance is the deliberately fragmented military-security apparatus.  All that leaves much to be desired and does not bode well for the Utopian socialist state that Hugo Chavez promised. 


When Hugo Chavez died, he did not leave behind a politically and morally competent leadership cadre capable of developing and enhancing domestic stability at home and, at the same time, conduct a successful asymmetric Bolivarian war abroad.  It did not help when oil prices dropped sharply, leaving the regime without the monetary resources necessary to keep the proverbial piñata full and plutocrats and citizens happy.    As a consequence, Venezuela is basically what it always has been—only worse under Nicolas Maduro.  As a consequence, Venezuela has moved into a downward spiral from an aspiring New Socialist state to failing state status. 


Now, interestingly and importantly, it is within the realm of possibility that the downward trajectory of Chavez’s “Plan A” would take Venezuela down the way toward a “Plan B” Dictatorship of the Proletariat is exactly what he intended all along.  It might well be that Venezuelan state failure would destroy all vestiges of liberal democracy and capitalism.  With that, the country’s Socialist leadership could take control of the means of production, distribution, communication, socio-economic programs, and the state security apparatus.  In turn, it would be relatively easy to build a model New Socialist Republic.  Some savants argue that efforts directed at controlling unconventional communications and social programs centers of gravity are merely political theater.   They are absolutely right.  What they do not understand, however, is that empirical data strongly indicates that this “political theater” is extremely effective in generating radical political, economic, and social change.  This transition is grand strategic and epochal in scale and justifies democratic centralism and the resultant coercive political culture that can take a polity from the demonstrated misery of liberal democracy and capitalism to the promised love and harmony of New Socialism. 


The same people who argue that emphasizing the “new” strategic-level communications and social programs centers of gravity is political theater also argue that Lt. Colonel Chavez was a clown.  Not so.  He was a warrior and knew what he was doing.  He knew that it would the last man standing—no matter how badly beaten-up he might be—who is the winner in contemporary asymmetric conflict.  As a consequence, there might well have been a “Plan C.”   If history is any indicator, that last man standing might be someone in uniform—or someone supported by someone in uniform who understands the concept of Asymmetric Bolivarian War.


Categories: Venezuela - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a retired Professor of Military Strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, and is a retired US Army colonel. He has has held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the USAWC, and over the past 40+ years, hehas served in various military and civilian positions. They include the US Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and Memphis University. Manwaring is the author and co-author of several articles, chapters, and books dealing with international security affairs, political-military affairs, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and gangs. His most recent book, Confronting the Evolving Global Security Landscape, Lessons from the Past and Present, was published by Praeger Security International, 2019. His most recent chapter is entitled “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): A Transnational Criminal-Insurgent-Terror Phenomenon.” It may be found in Kimberly L. Thachuk and Rollie Lal, Eds., Terrorist Criminal Enterprises: Financing Terrorism through Organized Crime, Praeger, 2018.  Dr. Manwaring is a graduate of the US Army War College and holds an M.A. and PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois. He is also a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow. He remains semi-active in the national security community, and may be contacted at