Opinion: The Venezuelan Military Needs to Swallow Hard – and Respect Democracy

In a recent appearance on national television, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez warned the opposition to: “Pray to God that I win the 2012 presidential elections, because if defeated the armed forces will rebel against you”.

That warning was seconded by Major General Henry Rangel Silva, head of the Venezuelan Operational Strategic Command, in a interview published on Monday. He declared that the notion of an “opposition government is hard to swallow, it would mean selling the country, and that is not going to be accepted, not by the Armed Force and much less by the people.”

These dual announcements underscore the politicization of the top rank of military officers at the personal service of President Chávez. By threatening to ignore the will of Venezuelan voters, the Chávez regime undermines its dubious claim to democratic legitimacy.

These statements should be loudly condemned by democratic leaders of the Americas who should no longer continue pretending that Venezuela is a bona fide democracy, but rather a one-person, militarized and repressive quasi-dictatorial regime. It is a regime that is the product of 11 years of systematically dismantling and corrupting our democratic institutions, until there are none that function properly, including elections themselves.

Given the disdain with which President Chávez clearly holds democratic values, it is no surprise that he has no scruples whatsoever in associating our country with regimes totally alien to our democratic traditions. His closest allies today are the least democratic nations on Earth-- among them Cuba, Iran, Libya Belarus, Russia and Syria.

General Silva, of course, has no reputation of integrity to uphold. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), under the Kingpin Act he has been designated -- together with two other senior Venezuelan government officials, General Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, Director General of Military Intelligence, and one former official, Ramón Rodríguez Chacin -- as materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

I have been saying for some time that the exit cost for the regime’s leaders is extremely high, as they are accessories to crimes for which they will be eventually prosecuted. This reality is doubtlessly behind General Silva Rangel's announcement that he would follow Chávez in rejecting an opposition electoral victory. These statements are not merely hypothetical.

Indeed, the Venezuelan opposition has the popular support to win a free and fair election. Recognizing this, the Chávez regime will do everything in its power to ensure that the next presidential election in 2012 will not be free and fair. They will try to accomplish this by perpetrating electoral frauds, intimidating voters and convincing the opposition to stay home because even if they win, they will still lose.

It would require an active imagination to believe that these military hierarchs are going to leave peacefully after having turned Venezuela into an international haven for terrorists and outlaws. A crime for which, sooner rather than later, they will be held accountable.

Diego Arria is the former Governor of the state of Caracas and former Ambassador of Venezuela to the Security Council of the United Nations.