SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government is training and arming Bolivian commando units to replace U.S.-supported counterterrorist teams, according to Bolivian defense officials.
The security assistance is provided under a defense cooperation agreement signed last year with President Evo Morales, who announced in August that Venezuela was supporting the construction of military bases along Bolivia’s eastern borders with Brazil and Paraguay.
Defense Minister Walker San Miguel said after a May 2006 visit by Mr. Chavez that 2,500 elite troops would be trained with Venezuelan assistance.
About 100 Bolivian servicemen were filmed by journalists recently as they boarded a Venezuelan air force Boeing 707 in the Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz. One lieutenant told The Washington Times that they were going to Venezuela to train in “intelligence, urban warfare and tactical operations.”
Defense analysts said 95 junior officers have been selected from a Bolivian commando unit called the Condors and from a regiment of Rangers to train in Venezuela.
U.S. military assistance to Bolivia has been virtually terminated during the past year over disagreements on counterterrorism and anti-drug policies.
Upon assuming the presidency in January 2006, Mr. Morales denounced a U.S. covert operation to remove Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles from Bolivian arsenals and refused to return sensitive counterterrorist equipment that the Pentagon demanded back.
The significance of the Venezuelan training for security and intelligence personnel — including Mr. Morales‘ personal protection detail — has been downplayed by army officials.
Gen. Wilfredo Vargas , the armed forces chief, said, “Anti-terrorist units don’t only train in Venezuela but in other countries where there are special courses using the latest technology.”
But Bolivian opposition leaders fear that Mr. Chavez is helping Mr. Morales to develop a shock unit that could be used to repress growing internal opposition to Mr. Morales‘ radical socialist program.
Gen. Marcelo Antezana, Bolivia’s retired army chief, said, “The current government has ordered the dissolving of the anti-terrorist force and has contracted 167 paramilitaries, which have been trained in the Condor school and are now instructed in Venezuela.”
He thinks the unit will be used against a growing autonomy movement in Bolivia’s eastern lowland regions of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, where authorities have rejected a new constitution that would put local lands and resources under the control of pro-government peasant groups.
“There is a well-defined plan to disrupt basic services and communications media in eastern Bolivian cities and proceed with the detention, retention and repression of certain individuals,” Gen. Antezana said in a television interview.
Mr. Morales accused eastern leaders of “sedition” and “separatism” after they called for a regional legal system and security force to control government-backed migrations of Andean Indians. Gen. Vargas has warned that the army will act against “groups seeking to divide the country.”