- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela| President Hugo Chavez’s socialist government is creating peasant-based militias throughout Venezuela’s rural, agricultural-rich regions, raising fears of confrontation among the country’s cattle ranchers and landholders.

The armed groups, organized by Venezuela’s military, will be responsible for protecting poor farmers from vigilante groups purportedly organized and financed by cattlemen and wealthy landowners, Mr. Chavez wrote in a newspaper column published Sunday.

“Faced with the onslaught against peasants through an escalation of aggressions, sabotage and hired killings by the most reactionary forces of our society, the duty of the state … is to protect the poor farmers,” Mr. Chavez wrote.

The newly formed militias will also help the military prepare for a possible foreign invasion, said Mr. Chavez, who has repeatedly warned that the U.S. military could invade Venezuela to seize control of its immense oil reserves. U.S. officials deny that any such plan exists.

The government claims that more than 300 peasants have been killed — purportedly by mercenaries for wealthy landholders — since authorities launched a sweeping land reform initiative in 2001.

Landowners and cattle ranchers dispute those claims, saying the Chavez administration is wrongly attempting to vilify them as a means of gaining political clout among the country’s poverty-stricken farmers. They vehemently deny hiring vigilantes to drive away or kill peasants, who occasionally squat on their lands or steal cattle.

“We’ve never sought paramilitary groups to protect ourselves,” said Manuel Heredia, president of the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers, which represents approximately 20,000 ranchers.

“If one of our members is accused and it’s proved that he was involved in a crime, he must pay for that crime. We’re not going to defend him because we don’t promote those types of actions,” Mr. Heredia said in a telephone interview.

It’s not clear exactly how many peasants have been killed in recent years. Representatives of the Attorney General’s Office could not be reached immediately to provide details. Prosecutors have not recently released information incriminating ranchers associations or their members in the slayings of peasants.

Mr. Heredia noted that violent crime is widespread throughout Venezuela — even in remote, rural areas and border regions where Colombian rebels and paramilitary groups operate — and that ranchers themselves are increasingly becoming kidnapping victims. Close to 100 cattlemen have been abducted during the past two years, according to the ranchers federation. Many ranchers suspect that Colombian guerrillas are responsible.

“These groups are supportive of the government,” Mr. Heredia said.

Jose Luis Betancourt, a cattle rancher on the sun-baked plains of Barinas state, urged the government to take measures to guarantee the security of all those who work in the countryside, not just peasant groups that support Mr. Chavez.

The government “should not create different groups that seek increased confrontation and distortion in the relations between those of us who live together in Venezuela’s agricultural zones,” Mr. Betancourt said.

“The security forces that already exist should provide security for all of those in the countryside.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez accused his adversaries of sabotaging the country’s electricity grid as part of a broader plan aimed at bringing about the system’s collapse — and his downfall.

Mr. Chavez said authorities must be “on the alert” and apprehend anyone who cuts electricity cables connected to the grid. Such sabotage has caused power failures in some regions and exacerbated the effects of severe energy shortages, he said.

“Be on the lookout. Patrols must be carried out to capture the saboteurs because those responsible must be caught and put in prison,” Mr. Chavez said during his weekly television and radio program, “Hello President.”

Referring to his government’s adversaries, he said: “They think that’s how they’re going to topple Chavez, and that’s what they’re seeking, but if there’s an electricity collapse, it won’t be Chavez who is going to fall. Prepare yourselves, bourgeois folks, because it will be you who will fall.”

The accusations were vague and Mr. Chavez provided no evidence supporting them.

Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez echoed the allegations.

“I have no doubt that many of the failures that are occurring are the product of sabotage. We are investigating,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Opposition leaders scoffed at the president’s claim, saying Mr. Chavez is trying to shed the blame for power shortages that critics say his government caused by failing to invest enough in electricity production over the last decade.

“The president is a great manipulator and he uses lies to fool the people,” Juan Jose Molina, an opposition politician, said in a telephone interview.

He noted more than a dozen projects to build thermoelectric plants have been delayed.

“It’s Chavez’s own incompetence that’s going to bring him down,” Mr. Molina said. “We want to get him out [of office] with votes.”

Mr. Chavez declared an energy emergency earlier this month, announcing that his socialist government will punish businesses and industries that use what the government considers excessive amounts of electricity. He promised discounts to those that cut consumption.

Under the plan, large businesses and factories must cut electricity consumption 20 percent or face sanctions, including hefty surcharges on electricity bills. The energy-saving initiative also targets ordinary Venezuelans who use more than 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month — an estimated 24 percent of all residential consumers, according to Mr. Chavez.

The plan is aimed at easing energy shortages that Mr. Chavez blames on a months-long drought. The lack of rain has caused water levels to drop to critical lows behind the Guri Dam, which supplies roughly 70 percent of Venezuela’s electricity.

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