Hugo Chávez was a complex and contradictory political figure. He was both a coup plotter and coup victim. He played petro-politics on the global stage, yet championed the climate change cause. He slashed poverty rates but increasing violence and lawlessness now threaten all Venezuelans. He loudly defied US imperialism yet sided with his Libyan and Syrian presidential counterparts, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, when democratic movements, not dissimilar to the one he launched in Venezuela himself, threatened their rule.
And while Chávez presented himself as a radical revolutionary, he relied solely on the state and increasingly the military to achieve his political aims. In fact, one unequivocal element of Chávez’s rule was the widespread militarisation of Venezuelan politics and society.
This is a shift that has received scant attention in the highly polarised coverage of Chávez in both life, and now since last week, his death. From a feminist perspective, this is problematic. Chávez’s militarisation of Venezuelan politics and society has detrimental and gendered impacts on everyday life in Venezuela as well as politics beyond its borders.
It deserves feminist attention because as research in the field of global politics has repeatedly shown, the militarisation of politics often equates to the masculinisation of politics. This gendered process leads to the exclusion of women (and some men) from the political sphere; the unnecessary militarisation of governance; and, in turn, the elimination of a diverse range of policy options. It also dangerously normalises the supposed "natural" link between masculinity, war, political leadership and the military.
As a career military man, it was inevitable that the military would play an increasingly central role in everyday Venezuelan politics under Chávez. After all, Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution began as a secret cell in the military in the 1970s and his first attempt at power was an unsuccessful military coup in 1992. However after the coup, Chávez transformed his movement into a political party and won the 1998 presidential election as a civilian.
Despite his civilian status, Chávez considerably militarised and masculinised Venezuelan politics. He is affectionately known as the Commander, not leader or president, to his supporters and openly performed a highly militarised caudillo presidential masculinity. Caudillo roughly translates as a charismatic Latin American strongman who has paramilitary and political connections. Culturally, it has some negative connotations and conjures up images of a paternalistic and sexually charismatic Latin American cowboy or general on horseback. The cult of the caudillo is steeped in Latin-American colonial history, and Chávez drew on this in his fiery anti-imperial rhetoric.
As part of his caudillo presidential masculinity, Chávez promoted his ideology of civilian-military unity whereby the military should be integrated as much as possible into civilian life and vice versa. Under his rule, the military became involved in social service policies and projects as diverse as housing, health care, education and food distribution.
To many, this was not a particularly controversial use of the military, which historically in the Latin American region had more so been used against the people it was supposed to protect. Chávez’s militarisation was perhaps more benign but my feminist curiosity remained weary as Chávez’s increasing radicalisation in the mid-2000s further militarised Venezuelan politics through his populist anti-US rhetoric.
After that point, Chávez tirelessly constructed the US as an enemy of the Venezuelan state and an imperial threat to the world, despite continuing a very healthy oil trade with what he often characterised as the empire to the North. In 2011 Chávez also attempted to conflate Western intervention in the Arab Spring and the establishment of US military bases in Colombia with a potential impending US invasion of Venezuela.
There may be some grains of truth to Chávez’s claims but feminist research has shown that such militarised and masculinised threat exaggeration politics enables leaders, both left and right, to militarise the societies they lead. If the US was likely to invade then Chávez’s notable militarisation of Venezuelan foreign policy via increased weapons purchases (mainly from Russia and China) was of course necessary. Moreover, the establishment of a significant civilian militia in 2005 was a legitimate policy move, as was the purchase of thousands of Kalashnikov assault and sniper rifles to arm them.
In June 2012 Chávez also proudly announced that Venezuela now operated a factory producing rifles, grenades, ammunition and surveillance drones. Such an influx of weapons into a highly polarised and unstable country like Venezuela is problematic from many perspectives, but particularly a feminist one which is aware of the systemic violence perpetrated against women and children.
During my time in Venezuela in mid-2011 I saw military personnel armed with AK47s "guarding" places as diverse as malls, town squares and bus terminals and worried what else these weapons would or could be used for. Venezuelan’s now well-known violent prison riots, where grenades and other of weapons have been used, offered one answer.
Chávez also militarised Venezuelan society in more banal ways. He militarised education, introducing compulsory pre-military instruction for students in their last two years of high school and in 2009 legislated that all citizens who failed to register with the military would be subject to fines and restricted from university and/or government jobs and financial assistance. This was an obvious militarisation of Venezuelan’s everyday lives, in particular Venezuelan women who also were now for the first time obliged to complete military service.
In the political sphere, the military’s influence is also clear: currently 11 of the 23 state governors are former military officers. One commentator recently warned that senior military figures are now even more powerful after Chávez’s death and that Chávez’s heir, Nicolás Maduro, who has never been in the military, is vulnerable to their manipulation. This does not bode well for domestic Venezuelan politics.
From a more international perspective, the billion-dollar weapons trade that Chávez launched also played a role in globalising militarism, contradicting much of his revolutionary anti-imperial rhetoric. This globalisation of militarism is a key concern of critical global politics scholars and activists across the globe, not just feminists. I acknowledge there is a significant difference between Chávez’s militarism and the imperial militarism Bush began and Obama has now entrenched via the global "War on Terror", but as a feminist all types of militarisation in different places and different guises are worthy of attention.
Chávez’s supposedly anti-imperial militarism and caudillo inspired presidenital masculinity is no different. It tells us, yet again, that gender matters when analysing global politics, in particular its militarised forms. Thus when debating Chávez’s legacy, it is essential to discuss his militarisation of Venezuelan politics and remain weary of its lasting gendered affects on Venezuelan society.
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