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Hugo Chavez' Henchmen

By Giuliana Chiappe, El Universal

While trained as soldiers, most Bolivarian bureaucrats now show their political face. Many of them are of humble origins, have humble provincial origins and big families and grew up austerely. Many graduated from the Military Academy with President Hugo Chávez. Today, they share a much less honorable record: allegations of irregularities committed during their public functions. No investigation has prospered.

There is little knowledge about the personal life of a variety of military officers that currently occupy bureaucratic and political positions in Venezuela. Many of them graduated from the Military Academy with President Hugo Chávez or within a few years. Not all of them were brilliant, not even diligent students, but they met Chávez in the classrooms, in the training fields or in the nights on leave. Some showed from the very beginning their identification with the tendency that is now called "Chavism."

A large number of these men have humble provincial origins and big families and grew up austerely. Today, they share a less honorable record: allegations of irregularities committed during their public functions. No investigation has prospered, though. The shades continue to surround them, without fully destroying or cleaning their reputations.

They are:

1. Acosta Carles, Luis Felipe

Brought up in Guárico state with 13 siblings by a mother who worked at home and a father who had various trades, Acosta confessed the Chilean writer Marta Harnecker - author of the book Militares con el pueblo (The Military Side by Side with the People) - that as a child he was never bought more than a pair of shoes a year. His father was a detective with the General Direction of Police (Digepol) under the government of President Rómulo Betancourt (1959-64), but also worked as an ambulance driver for a hospital of San Juan de Los Morros, Guárico's capital. In his family, elder brothers funded the education of the youngest. He entered a Catholic seminar but dropped out to enroll in the National Guard's Training School (Efofac). His brother Felipe Antonio, who died during the 1989 events, was a founding member of Chávez' MBR-200 insurrectional movement. President Chávez recently discharged him to launch his nomination for the Carabobo state elections. His parents did not leave him any wealth, he says, but he "did inherit education."

2. Alcalá Cordones, Cliver A.

He keeps a low profile but supports the revolution at high levels of military command. His participation was determinant in the government's takeover of Caracas' Metropolitan Police by late 2002. During the occupation, at the end of an opposition march to the police's headquarters where government supporters were concentrated, television cameras filmed (and broadcasted) the moment when he kissed Aixa Guevara, an activist of the ruling party MVR in the capital's Chacao district. Alcalá was the 10th best student of his the Class of 1986 of the Military Academy of Venezuela.

3. Baduel, Raúl Isaías

Born in Guárico state, Baduel graduated one year after President Chávez did. As he told Harnecker in an interview, his mother brought him up on her own with her salary as a worker of a state electricity company. He fist met his father, an oil worker, as an adult. He took an oath with Chávez before the dead trunk of Güere's monkeypod, an icon of Venezuelan history in Aragua state. Graduated as the 11th best student of the Class of 1976 of the Military Academy of Venezuela, he was a founding member of MBR-200.

4. Cabello Rondón, Diosdado

In the military world, he has the reputation of being a very intelligent man. In fact, he has the fifth highest IQ among the officers graduated from the Military Academy. A computer systems engineer, Cabello was discharged from the Armed Forces after the 1992 coup attempt. His first job in the public administration was in President Rafael Caldera's mother-infant food special program. Under Chávez, his first job was as president of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel). Born in Monagas state, he graduated from the Military Academy in the second position of his class in 1987.

5. Carreño Escobar, Pedro Miguel

Famous, among other reasons, for accusing DirecTV cable provider of spying on its clients through the television sets, Carreño emphatically told the Venezuelans that former Peruvian security chief Wladimiro Montesinos was dead. He was born in Barinas, the president's homeland. He graduated in the 62nd position in the same promotion as current governor of Mérida state, Florencio Porras (number 1), in 1985. Presently a legislator representing his native state at the National Assembly, he has also held positions in the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Miraflores Presidential Palace.

6. Chacón Escamillo, Jessie A.

His fellow military officers call him Commander Gato (Cat). He first hit the news on November 27, 1992, when he, his brother Arné and Captain Valera Rumbos assaulted the state television channel Venezolana de Television as part of a second frustrated coup attempt that year. That very morning, Chacón was responsible for the transmission of the infamous "man in the pink T-shirt" and later made a video showing President Chávez in prison. He graduated in the 12th position in the same promotion as Cabello and José Vielma (number 82), in 1987. He obtained a diploma, with honors, as a computer systems engineer from the Polytechnic Institute of the Armed Forces (Iupfan). He was chosen to read the speech of his promotion.

7. Cruz Weffer, Víctor Antonio

Graduated two years before Chávez did, he described himself in an interview with Carlos Croes as "a poor man, born to a very humble oil worker from Cabimas (Zulia state) and native from Falcón (state)." He is among the most questioned officers to serve as commander of the Army and to preside over the Urban Development Fund (Fondur). In fact, Chávez has said he removed Cruz from his duties "to tighten some screws." However, he was never investigated. Journalist Marianella Salazar accused him of buying an apartment in Caracas' San Román neighborhood for one million dollars. Besides, the Fort Lauderdale Registry shows his name as the owner a house in Bonaventures Lakes. He was the second best in the Class of 1973 of the Military Academy.

8. García Carneiro, Jorge Luis

He was a classmate of Chávez in the Military Academy. According to Harnecker's account, he was born in a little house by the Fuerte Tiuna military base, in Caracas. He is not a pioneer of the Bolivarian thought. Indeed, Luis Pineda Castellanos, a former bodyguard of the president, says in his book El Diablo paga con traición a quien le sirve con lealtad (roughly Devil Betrays the Loyal) that the February 4, 1992, officers, including García Carneiro, "kneeled down to Chávez" once he became president. In the Military Academy, he is known for being an inflexible instructor. Pineda and Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, an ex friend of Chávez', have said that he has a pending trial linked to the death of a young soldier during a training session. He graduated as the number 60 of the Class of 1975, where Chávez occupied the eighth position, in 1975.

9. García Montoya, Julio José

He graduated in the 23rd position two years before Chávez. He practiced fencing in the Academy. Before the current government, he was never promoted to the rank of division general, even though he had the necessary years of career to deserve it. Chávez did so.

10. López Hidalgo, Melvin

He graduated with Chávez. His performance at the helm of the Plan Bolívar 2000 civil-military operation was mordantly questioned. For instance, a soldier was taped exchanging a check with the name of a hardware provider following López' order. This and other irregularities led Attorney Rómulo Pacheco to initiate an investigation, which was halted. As head of a governmental strategic analysis team, he warned that the United States was preparing an invasion to Venezuela. He graduated in the 23rd position in 1975.

11. Méndez Romero, Arévalo E.

He also studied with Chávez. At the moment, he is the country's deputy foreign minister. Pineda Castellanos says in his book that Méndez used to accuse the President of being "a coward man who made them lose their careers." He approached Chávez when he won the elections. He took the 10th position in the Military Academy's Class of 1975.

12. Morao Gardona, Jesús

With a very discrete profile, he supports Chávez from strategic positions. In 2002, he was the chief officer of the Military House. Morao was born in a middle-class family of Caripito, Monagas state. He is one of the six children of a banking manager. He learned about the February 1992 coup attempt day before the uprising, but he backed the dissidents. For this reason, he spent some time in the San Carlos prison. He graduated in the 20th position in 1981.

13. Pérez Issa, Gustavo Manuel

Another member of Chávez' promotion, he took part in the November 1992 failed coup. Pineda Castellanos says that Pérez Issa held meetings with officers named Velandia Bello, Rojas Mujica and Silva Bonett in an office of the Torre Cémica (in eastern Caracas), owned by Alejandro Riera, Silva Bonett's father-in-law. He served as the first agriculture minister of the Chávez administration, and also worked in the state oil firm Pdvsa. He occupied the 31st position in the Class of 1975 of the Military Academy.

14. Rangel Gómez, Francisco J.

Despite his friendship with President Chávez, the most notorious action in Rangel's career is his immediate resignation to the presidency of metallurgy holding Corporación Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) during the April 2002 events, when Chávez was briefly forced out of office. After Chávez' return, he recovered his post. The president has chosen him as director of the Military Academy of Venezuela, chief of staff and CVG's head. During the presidential campaign, he organized a mounted procession in Los Próceres park, in Caracas. Graduated in the 53rd position of his class in 1975, he has a degree of computer systems engineer from the Polytechnic Institute of the Armed Forces (Iupfan).

15. Salmerón, Raúl

He used to play baseball with Chávez in the Military Academy and they graduated together. He took part in the November 1992 coup attempt and in the foundation of Chávez party Movimiento Quinta República (MVR). He was director of the National Sports Institute and is now the mayor of Los Teques, capital of Miranda state. Salmerón occupied the 65th position in the Class of 1975 of the Military Academy.

16. Silva, Wilfredo Ramón

The only male of a family of eleven children, he grew up in La Miel, Lara state. Marta Harnecker's book says that his father was a truck driver and his mother, an auxiliary nurse. His family was so "poor that he sometimes ate only once a day." One day after he finished high school he enrolled the Military Academy. He has been accused of illegally dealing with food products from his position in the Mercal popular marketplaces program. No investigation was opened about the matter. He occupied the 28th position in the Class of 1977 of the Academy.

19. Verde Graterol, Nelson

He also holds a low profile but has occupied important posts in the Chávez administration. The Military Academy's yearbook for the Class of 1975 says he was a "frequent visitor of the cadet's casino." His brother Alberto, who was a lieutenant, died during a clash with a guerrilla group. He graduated in the 33rd rank from the Military Academy.

Translated by Edgardo Malaver

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