Hugo Chávez took another bold step in his campaign to consolidate authoritarian control over the Venezuelan people when he promoted Gen. Henry Rangel Silva to the rank of General-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Silva is in the limelight because in an interview this week regarding the military and the 2012 presidential elections, Silva declared:

The hypothesis of an elected [opposition] government is hard to swallow, it would mean selling the country, and that is not going to be accepted, not by the armed forces and much less by the people.

Message: Beware, if the elections do not go our way; the Army is prepared to step in.

Gen. Silva is a Chávez loyalist and political general whose rise is connected to loyalty rather than merit or professionalism. For years Silva oversaw Chávez’s intelligence agency (DISIP), a shadowy body closely linked to the Cuban security apparatus. In September 2008, Silva was named along with two other senior officials as a key link between Colombia’s narco-terrorists FARC and the drug trade. The U.S. action only led Chávez to promote Silva to positions of higher visibility. Chávez’s promotion of Silva in the aftermath of an unacceptable anti-democratic outburst is clear indication of the rapid deterioration of democratic legitimacy in Venezuela.

Chávez is also locked in a contest with the U.S. for the extradition of a major Venezuelan drug trafficker, Walid Makled. The Venezuelan was arrested in August in Colombia and is charged in a New York indictment with organizing multi-ton shipments of cocaine to the U.S. Colombia must now decide whether to send Makled to Venezuela, where he will surely be silenced, or the U.S.

While incarcerated in Colombia, Makled has pointed to senior officials in the Chávez regime deeply involved in drug complicity and pay-offs. The list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the top military/security brass. It includes General Silva; Gen. Luis Felipe Acosta Carles, a military regional chief in Carabobo; Minister of Justice and Interior Tareck El Aissami and his brother; the chief of Venezuelan military intelligence, Gen. Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios; General Luis Mota, Comandante of the Armed Forces; and General Néstor Reverón, chief of Venezuela’s Anti-Narcotics Police. Rampant corruption in the Venezuelan military certainly impacts morale and discipline, a point made last summer during Senate hearings for the next U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. It also again raises the question: Is Venezuela a narco-state, a state sponsor of terror or both?

While claiming to be a legitimate, elected president, Chávez is inclined to govern erratically and irresponsibly and in an imperial manner worthy of a classical tyrant. Chávez has begun to realize that his ultimate safeguard rests neither in responsible stewardship nor the fickle support of the people who will tire of misgovernment and criminality but with a thuggish band of Praetorian Guards who—Chávez dangerously believes—will protect him from his enemies and the people.