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Crafting Civilian Control of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective (review)

From: Latin American Politics & Society
Volume 49, Number 2, Summer 2007
pp. 213-216 | 10.1353/lap.2007.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Military subordination to civilian authorities is an absolute must for democratization. But how do unarmed civilians obtain military obedience, particularly in new democracies? According to Trinkunas, civilian control of the military can be applied in different degrees, depending on critical strategic choices made by politicians and civil society. These choices can assure civilian control (as in Spain, Chile, and Argentina) or might be ill-designed, leading to perverse outcomes.

Trinkunas's exceptional account of the civil-military relations in three different critical stages of Venezuelan democratization (the so-called trienio adeco from 1945 to 1948, the democratic period inaugurated in 1958, and the current process of radical political transformation that started in 1998 with the presidential election of Hugo Chávez) seeks to demonstrate that Venezuelan politicians have been enduringly unable to impose efficient mechanisms of control on the military. The crucial question, however, is whether Venezuelan politicians could have done anything different. Trinkunas's answer is unmistakably affirmative. He argues that Venezuelan democratizers never sought to develop the necessary institutions and mechanisms to achieve long-term control of the military. This strong statement is both insightful and provoking.

Trinkunas creates a very compelling theory of Venezuelan civil-military relations. He also presents a systematic and well-documented account of the historical clashes and agreements between civilian politicians and the armed forces, which supports his claims about politicians' incapacity or unwillingness to enforce more effective controls. Nevertheless, some pieces of this historical puzzle might be interpreted in a slightly different fashion.

In chapter 1, Trinkunas makes a good point when he argues that experts in Venezuelan democratization have overstated the importance of civilian politics and underestimated the role of the military. Political analysts, he contends, have missed the crucial point that as a consequence of strategic choices made by elected presidents, the Venezuelan armed forces have never been effectively controlled by civilian politicians. To fill this theoretical gap, Trinkunas introduces a strategic theory of democratizers' behavior. Adopting an agency-based approach, he claims that the mode of transition just creates a structure of opportunities. This structure certainly affects the regime's leverage, but democratizers have considerable room for choosing strategies to increase that leverage in regard to the military.

Politicians can use and mix four different types of strategies: appeasement (satisfying institutional and personal demands of the military to dissuade military intervention), monitoring (maintaining surveillance and "fire alarms" to identify opportunely possible threats), divide and conquer (exploiting internal cleavages to prevent stable antiregime coalitions), and sanctioning (to induce cooperation with the democratic regime). Higher levels of civilian control require investments in "regime capacity," which implies leadership commitment and development of both institutional resources and specialized personnel to effectively oversee military activities. Thus the outcomes in civil-military relations in new democracies not only depend on regime leverage but also are contingent on regime capacity.

The ideal extreme outcome is the civilian oversight of military activities. Oversight requires high levels of both regime leverage and capacity (as, for example, in Spain after 1985 and Argentina since 2003). At the other extreme, a democracy with low levels of regime capacity and regime leverage is a "regime at risk" (such as Venezuela in 1945–48). Low levels of regime leverage and high levels of regime capacity produce "regime persistence" (like the Chilean case since 2004), whereas high levels of regime leverage and low levels of capacity lead to "civilian control by containment" (as in Venezuela, 1959–69). Since the 1992 coup attempt, Venezuela stands between "regime at risk" and "civilian control by containment."

In chapters 2 through 6, Trinkunas presents historical evidence for his regime capacity argument. He asserts that Venezuelan politicians repeatedly chose not to invest in building institutional mechanisms and developing specialized personnel. They were therefore unable to impose or induce control by oversight.

In chapter 2, Trinkunas contends that the first democratic experiment collapsed as a consequence of the imbalance of power between the military and Acción Democrática. In this context, AD simply "abdicated" its capacity to control the military, and logically was defeated by ambitious military officers. In addition, the high level of conflict among parties weakened politicians' capability to manage. Whereas the leaders of AD attempted...

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