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As Chavez fights cancer, military could be key player in Venezuela's political future
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' Venezuela's military took center stage in the country's bicentennial celebrations Tuesday, and it likely will be a key player in the country's political future if Hugo Chavez is eventually forced out of the presidency by cancer.
Thousands of troops marched beneath thundering fighter jets and helicopters while an announcer's booming voice declared that the nation is "free, socialist, independent."
Top brass appeared alongside Chavez, a former paratrooper, as he saluted and addressed the parade from his presidential palace. The image brought to mind key moments of Chavez's career, such as a 2002 coup against him, in which military loyalists came to his rescue.
Despite the appearance of a fully unified Bolivarian National Armed Force, some analysts and former officers say there are long-standing internal divisions between those who solidly stand behind Chavez's drive for socialism and those who do not. If Chavez's health worsens, some believe latent tensions could erupt within the ranks and the military could end up playing a key role in any transition to new leadership.
"It's going to clearly be an important actor in the days to come," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst with IHS Global Insight in London. He said the military is "the only institution that would have the power to put pressure on the political actors to generate outcomes."
Much depends on Chavez's health, however.
In his address to the parade, the president said he was glad to be back after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in Cuba, but that his treatment prevented him from participating in the festivities.
"Here I am, in recuperation but still recovering. We've begun another long march," Chavez said. He spoke for about 12 minutes under a portrait of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, for whom his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement is named.
One officer stood at attention and addressed the president from atop a tank: "We will get out of the abyss together with you."
Troops in combat fatigues marched in formation, while others in colonial-era uniforms goose-stepped down the parade route outside the country's military headquarters. The parade marked the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain.
Some analysts say there are multiple factions within the armed forces, including a large contingent of midlevel officers who are professional soldiers, or "institutionalists," with no particular allegiance to Chavez's socialist movement. That has become a source of tension in recent years as Chavez has instituted the new salute repeated by soldiers: "Socialist fatherland or death!"
Analysts believe those midlevel officers would be inclined to insist on a constitutional transition of power in the event of the president's departure.
In contrast, Chavez's high command is openly in favor of his socialist project and loyal to him.
"We're going to see the high military command become increasingly politicized," said Rocio San Miguel, who leads a non-governmental organization that monitors security and defense issues in Venezuela.
Venezuelan military leaders "have historically shown that they have a keen sense of smell to know the real alternatives of power, and to know when is the decline or fall of other powers," San Miguel said. She added that she isn't suggesting Chavez is in decline, and said much will depend on how his condition evolves.
"The armed forces in Venezuela have historically shown movement when there is a possibility of a real alternative in power," San Miguel said.
Prominent Chavez opponent Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, said in an email that he believes Chavez was forced to return from Cuba "upon seeing the internal conflict in his own party with the main civilian leaders and in the armed forces."
Chavez's allies have strongly denied any such divisions, saying the military has been firmly behind the government during Chavez's nearly monthlong absence in Cuba.
While Chavez wasn't at the parade, he made his presence felt on Twitter, where his account posted 10 messages Tuesday by 2 p.m., including seven within an hour during and after the ceremony.
One message thanked Russia "and its government and support," referring to the Russian-made fighter jets that streaked over the parade ground outside Fort Tiuna. "Today, yes, we have a truly armed Armed Force! How moral! How mystic! Congratulations!"
Another message read: "Thanks to the People's Republic of China for its invaluable support in having our Armed Forces well equipped and trained."
China is Venezuela's biggest creditor, having agreed to more than $30 billion in loans to be paid back in oil, and has helped train Venezuelan troops.
Cuba has also taken a bigger role in Venezuela, sending military advisers in recent years.
Chavez counts many current and former military officers among his closest confidants, some of them fellow participants in a failed coup that Chavez led in 1992. Following his surprise return from Cuba on Monday, Chavez wore the fatigues and red beret of his army days as he rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace.
Chavez also has taken steps in recent years to ensure tighter control, making sure loyalists are in charge following a failed 2002 coup. Dissident generals briefly ousted Chavez then until he was restored to power amid street protests with the help of other generals who backed him.
In the past few years, Chavez has built up a parallel force of civilian militias, enlisting tens of thousands of men and women who go through regular boot-camp training. Government opponents have criticized the militias, calling them a force aimed at ensuring Chavez stays in power.
"If President Chavez indeed starts to recover and continues being the strongman, the caudillo, the center of all the political dynamics in Venezuela, those tensions are going to be dissipated ahead of the presidential election of 2012," Moya-Ocampos said.
"If President Chavez again shows signs of weakness in a way which could open up again a behind-the-scenes debate over the succession of President Chavez, which is a very sensitive matter ... within the armed forces itself, then that could be another issue."
Associated Press writer Jack Chang contributed to this report.