Monday, October 17, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela

Marialena Moron always wanted to be a soldier. A 44-year-old mother of six, she spends her Saturday mornings learning how to salute under the burning sun.xxxxxxxxxxxx Beside her are 250 men and women — from 18-year-olds to senior citizens — standing in formation on an overgrown soccer field south of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

For Mrs. Moron, a street vendor, the military reserves is a chance to advance women’s rights.

But many of her fellow trainees have a bigger objective: They want to be ready within six months to deter any U.S. assault.

“We are preparing for the invasion,” said Lt. Octavio Serrano, who commands Mrs. Moron’s reserve unit. “They could infiltrate the CIA [into Venezuela] … or it could be directly and militarily, like they invaded Iraq.”

Mrs. Moron’s unit, which has more than 2,000 volunteers, was one of many created in April after President Hugo Chavez announced a plan to increase Venezuela’s military reserves from 50,000 to 2 million.

Mr. Chavez repeatedly has accused Washington of trying to overthrow his government, and even attempting to assassinate him.

The U.S. administration has denied the charges, but conservative Christian broadcaster the Rev. Pat Robertson inflamed the situation some weeks ago when he said the United States should assassinate Mr. Chavez because “it’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.”

Strikes, referendum cited

Mr. Chavez, who was visiting President Fidel Castro, an ally, in Cuba during the uproar, blames Washington for the failed coup against him in 2002, as well as national strikes that ended in early 2003 and the recall referendum last year against his presidency.

“If something happens to me, the responsible one will be George W. Bush,” Mr. Chavez has said. Increasing his fears is a conviction that the United States has designs on Venezuela’s petroleum reserves — the hemisphere’s largest.

Gen. Melvin Lopez, inspector general of the armed forces and a driving force behind the new army reserves, said Venezuela needs to train ordinary citizens because it can’t match the United States in traditional military terms.

He said that if necessary, Venezuela would seek to emulate Washington’s enemies in the Vietnam War and the insurgents battling U.S. and allied forces in Iraq.

“They can come in here, disembark, bomb us, etcetera, but the people can respond,” Gen. Lopez said.

Lt. Serrano said his reservists-to-be, drawn largely from the poor, are being trained to operate the army’s FAL assault rifle, and by early next year should be able to replace regular soldiers if necessary. Yet four months into their training, the men and women lined up behind him were still wearing makeshift uniforms and had not touched a rifle.

Cuban army model

Critics of Mr. Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel of paratroops, say he is imitating the Cuban military by giving himself direct command over a force more loyal and ideological than the regular army.

“His inspiration is the model of the Cuban army,” said opposition lawmaker Pedro Pablo Alcantara, who says Cuban military advisers helped draft the new law governing Venezuela’s armed forces. “The national reserves and territorial guard are practically a new militia.”

But former Defense Minister Fernando Ochoa, who was in office when Mr. Chavez attempted a coup in 1992 while colonel, said the Venezuelan military reservists are incapable of the sort of ideological warfare found in conflicts in the Middle East.

Mr. Alcantara and others also say enlistment is rising not because of anti-U.S. feeling but because reservists will receive a day’s pay equivalent to $7.40, while the minimum wage is equivalent to $6.25 a day.

Military analysts estimate that 100,000 men and women have registered for the reserves, nearly double the number that Gen. Lopez says were in the reserves before the president’s appeal.

Mr. Chavez, who says he is leading a “revolution for the poor,” calls Mr. Bush “Mr. Danger,” and has deemed the U.S. president’s administration the “most savage, cruel and murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world.”

A U.S. official in Venezuela who declined to be named said: “The orchestrated campaign makes it difficult to pursue a normal relationship. The rhetoric has a real cost.”

Yet Mr. Chavez recently offered the United States $5 million in aid and 1 million barrels of loaned gasoline to help recovery from Hurricane Katrina, while criticizing the Bush administration’s response to the disaster.

The Venezuelan government also said it was ready to renew anti-drug efforts with the United States. Mr. Chavez had accused U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of spying and suspended cooperation with the agency.

On Friday, Venezuelan and U.S. officials held talks on anti-narcotics cooperation in the first meeting since Washington branded the Chavez government a failure in the war on drugs.

After the talks with the U.S. ambassador, Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon told reporters that the governments had made progress toward an anti-narcotics accord, including potential sharing of U.S. aerial-surveillance data in the Caribbean.

“We are going to keep working and look at areas where we can cooperate,” Mr. Chacon was quoted as saying in yesterday’s edition of the Daily Journal, an English-language paper in Caracas.

An ‘information war’

Washington also has accused Mr. Chavez of leading an increasingly authoritarian regime and funding regional guerrilla movements, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist group.

Military analyst Alberto Garrido says increased U.S. criticism of Venezuela was part of an “information war” that marked a shift from a conciliatory policy to a more aggressive, Pentagon-driven strategy toward Caracas.

The hardened U.S. stance, Mr. Garrido added, was in response to Mr. Chavez’s growing influence in the region, thanks to energy agreements with Latin American and Caribbean countries and his strong alliance with Mr. Castro.

Still, some analysts and economists say Mr. Chavez will not compromise his relationship with Venezuela’s largest oil customer and financial market.

Venezuela accounts for about 15 percent of U.S. crude oil supplies, which makes up 60 percent of Venezuela’s exports of about 2 million barrels a day.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez’s domestic critics say he is circumventing the regular armed forces to create a military body that can suppress domestic opposition.

But volunteer Jesus Leon, 30, a sculptor, is having none of that. “Our fatherland is at risk,” he said. “Civilians should prepare themselves for the military side of life.”

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