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Four Things You Need to Know about Venezuela

(2). The regime is run partly by Cubans.

In early 2010, several former Chávez loyalists published a letter denouncing the “incursion of outside elements” into key Venezuelan institutions, including the armed forces. As if to demonstrate their point, Cuban Gen. Ramiro Valdés, founder of the notorious G2 intelligence service, arrived in Venezuela to help Chávez consolidate his burgeoning autocracy. (Valdés was supposedly visiting the South American country as an energy consultant, but the real purpose of his trip was easy to discern.) The cash-strapped Castro government desperately needs Venezuelan oil subsidies, so it is desperate to keep Chávez in power. Hence the influx of Cuban “advisers” working to strengthen his Bolivarian revolution. Caracas is now persecuting retired Gen. Antonio Rivero for decrying the Cubanization of the Venezuelan military.

By giving Cuban officials such important roles in Venezuela’s security apparatus, Chávez has done two things: First, he has brought in trained Communists with a wealth of experience running a dictatorship. Second, he has given Havana significant influence over Venezuelan government operations -- as long as he remains in power. A non-Chávez government, whether democratic or not, might well seek to reverse the process of Cubanization, which has inflamed nationalist passions and angered senior members of the Venezuelan armed forces, not to mention many other Venezuelan authorities. “In some ministries, such as health and agriculture, Cuban advisers appear to wield more power than Venezuelan officials,” The Economist reported last year. “The health ministry is often unable to provide statistics -- on primary health-care or epidemiology for instance -- because the information is sent back to Havana instead.”

(3). The regime’s senior military allies are complicit in the drug trade.

To date, the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned three top Venezuelan generals for having links to drug trafficking: Cliver Alcalá, a prominent army commander; Hugo Carvajal, the military intelligence chief; and Henry Rangel Silva, the defense minister. All three are devoted chavistas, whereas many other Venezuelan military officials have grown estranged from Chávez. When Alcalá was added to the Treasury blacklist a few months ago, Univision reporter Casto Ocando noted that he stood out as “one of the few military figures that still has the confidence of the Venezuelan president.”

Both Alcalá and Venezuelan intelligence official Ramón Isidro Madriz Moreno -- along with two pro-Chávez legislators -- were accused of collaborating with Colombian narco-terrorists belonging to the FARC. These charges came on the heels of explosive allegations by imprisoned cocaine kingpin Walid Makled, who has claimed that dozens of Venezuelan generals and government officials were involved in his lucrative drug business. The Chávez government is effectively a military regime, and the generals implicated by Makled and Treasury include some of the highest-ranking members of that regime.

(4). The regime has trained thousands of pro-government paramilitary fighters, who represent a serious long-term threat to domestic peace and stability.

Call them the Venezuelan Revolutionary Guards: Chávez has established a militia comparable to the famous Iranian outfit that is sworn to defend theocratic rule. Earlier this year, a presidential decree brought these Venezuelan paramilitary fighters under Chávez’s direct command; it also gave them officers who are independent of the army. According to an analysis of captured FARC computer files by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Venezuelan paramilitaries have received direct training from Colombia’s biggest terror group. “FARC communications also discussed providing training in urban terrorism methods for representatives of the Venezuelan Communist Party and several radical cells from 23 de Enero, a Caracas slum that has long been a hive of pro-Chávez activity,” as the New York Times has reported.

While the exact size of the pro-Chávez militia remains disputed, there is no question that it has grown disturbingly large. (There is also no question that Caracas has purchased massive amounts of sophisticated Russian weaponry.) The militia represents “a personal army, a Praetorian Guard,” retired Venezuelan Adm. Elias Buchszer told the Associated Press last year. Its true raison d’être, he said, is to perpetuate the Bolivarian revolution. If Chávez died of cancer, or if he were in real danger of losing the 2012 election, the militia could conceivably be called out to squash political unrest. That could lead to bloody street violence, and possibly something much worse.