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Venezuela Table of Contents




Amphibious vessels
Courtesy Embassy of Venezuela, Washington

Like all countries, Venezuela must approach questions of security and defense by considering its geography, its natural resources, its population, and its regional political interests. During the modern era, two such considerations have shaped Venezuelan security policy more than any others. These are the nation's status as a major producer and exporter of petroleum, and its role as a regional power within the Caribbean Basin (see Glossary) area. The country's external defense posture, its internal disposition of forces, and its relations with neighboring states responded in large part to these imperatives.

The development of Venezuela as a major oil producer after World War II transformed the nation both economically and socially. This process of societal transition was reflected in the military institution as well. Long an unprofessional, internal security-oriented force subject to the vagaries of policy as laid down by self-absorbed dictators, the Venezuelan military began a transition under democratic rule.

The growth of the oil industry provided both a legitimate mission for the armed forces in protecting the oil fields and, even more important, the resources with which to accomplish that mission. President Betancourt established the policy of committing significant revenues to the military. Although Betancourt's motivation was largely a political one--keeping the officer corps satisfied so as to forestall future military intervention in affairs of state--his actions yielded a benefit in purely military terms as well. Subsequent administrations have maintained this policy. As a result, the National Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Nacionales--FAN) had become by the 1970s the best equipped military force in Latin America. With this strengthened military posture and the nation's enhanced stature in both regional and international arenas, the concept of Venezuela as an actor with a defined sphere of influence began to take hold in Caracas. At the same time, other South American countries grew to resent, to varying degrees, falling under the shadow of their more resource-rich neighbor.

Venezuela's regional sphere of influence equated roughly with the strategic area that came to be known during the 1980s as the Caribbean Basin. Culturally, the countries of the basin are diverse, ranging from primarily Hispanic Central America to the former British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean to the French and African fusion in Haiti. Despite some variations, all the countries of the basin were economically underdeveloped, and therefore potentially unstable politically. Beginning in the 1960s, the presence of communist Cuba, its major military buildup, and its undisguised intentions to subvert established governments in the area added an urgency to the goal of maintaining Caribbean stability. Cuba's alignment with the Soviet Union also forced strategists in democratic nations such as Venezuela to factor global variables into their security posture.

During the 1980s, Venezuela involved itself actively in the Caribbean Basin. Despite some rhetorical bows to the concept of nonintervention, policy makers generally supported the United States intervention in Grenada in 1983. After the reestablishment of democratic government in that country, Venezuela provided limited economic aid to Grenada, as it had to other island states.

In 1980 Venezuela and Mexico had signed the San José Accord to provide oil at subsidized rates and other economic assistance to designated beneficiary states in the Caribbean Basin (see Foreign Assistance , ch. 3). Their purpose was to cushion the impact of oil price increases on the small oil-importing countries of the basin. Their motivations, however, were as much political and strategic as altruistic. Given the already precarious economic condition of most of these countries, the added burden of oil price increases in 1973 and 1979 had threatened to push many of them from stagnant poverty into widespread social unrest. Although the accord became less economically sustainable for Venezuela and Mexico as oil prices dropped throughout the 1980s, both countries continued to uphold its provisions and expand the number of beneficiaries throughout the decade, mainly because of the perceived political benefits and the potential adverse impact on the importing countries of an oil cutoff.

Although the Venezuelan military was capable of projecting its power to a limited extent within the Caribbean Basin, it never actively used this power. Instead, Venezuela has applied its efforts to promote regional stability mainly in the diplomatic arena (see Foreign Relations , ch. 4). This approach was epitomized by the Central American crisis of the 1980s. Venezuela was one of the original "core-four" nations--along with Mexico, Colombia, and Panama--that joined together in 1983 Contadora Group (see Glossary), in an effort to resolve the tensions in the region through negotiation and avoid armed conflict and possible foreign military intervention.

Venezuela supported the Contadora process as a peaceful path to stability in an area where tensions had escalated following the 1979 seizure of power by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional--FSLN) in Nicaragua. The Venezuelan government, led by President Carlos Andrés Pérez, had supported the Sandinistas during the struggle against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and had cooperated with Cuba, Costa Rica, and other governments to supply arms to the Nicaraguan rebels. The Pérez administration, which had some doubts as to the FSLN's commitment to democratic principles, apparently believed that it could exert sufficient influence over a postrevolutionary Nicaraguan government to ensure some degree of pluralism. As the Sandinistas moved to force moderates out of the government, however, it became clear to Venezuela that the overwhelming foreign influence in Nicaragua was Cuban. Although Pérez had cooperated with Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz in arming the Nicaraguans, Venezuela still viewed Cuba as a regional competitor for political influence and as a potential military threat. Therefore, as the FSLN consolidated its rule, set up Cuban-style mechanisms of control, acquired significant amounts of Soviet weaponry to equip a growing military, and increasingly aligned itself with the Soviet Union and its communist allies in political and security matters, Venezuelans looked on with growing alarm.

The Contadora process, however, proved incapable of dealing with the complex Central American situation. Among the core-four nations, Venezuela found itself advocating a much more moderate, security-conscious position than that espoused by the other sponsoring countries. Early on in the process, the government of Colombian president Belisario Betancur Cuartas appeared to take the lead in the negotiating process. But as the talks became protracted, the Mexican government of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado moved toward the forefront. The Mexicans, however, generally advocated conditions more favorable to the Nicaraguan government than to the more democratic states of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. From the Venezuelan perspective, the talks became increasingly counterproductive as they dragged on for years without producing an agreement. During the early to mid-1980s, Venezuelans became preoccupied to an increasing extent with their own economic crisis and apparently could not muster sufficient resources or influence to devote to what seemed to many a futile diplomatic exercise. As the United States government worked behind the scenes to influence the process toward a resolution that would limit the interventionist nature of the Sandinista regime and promote pluralism in Nicaragua, Caracas came to concur informally with these goals and disengaged itself somewhat from the negotiations.

Data as of December 1990

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Venezuela Table of Contents