- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

CHARALLAVE, Venezuela | A 54-year-old housewife fired the machine gun for the first time, letting loose a thunderous burst of gunfire and beaming with satisfaction. A boot camp instructor shouted, “Kill those gringos.”

Thousands of civilian volunteers in olive-green fatigues were training over the weekend at a Venezuelan army base, where they learned to crawl under barbed wire, fire assault rifles and stalk enemies in combat.

Known as the Bolivarian Militia, this spirited group of mostly working-class men and women — from students to retirees — are united by their militant support for President Hugo Chavez and their willingness to defend his government.

From what exactly?

Mr. Chavez has warned repeatedly of potential threats: the United States, U.S.-allied Colombia and the Venezuelan “oligarchy,” as he labels opponents. He has called on recruits to be ready to lay down their lives if necessary to battle “any threat, foreign or domestic,” even though Venezuela has never fought a war against another nation.

In the meantime, the militia is a practical tool for Mr. Chavez to engage his supporters, rally nationalist fervor and intimidate any opponents who might consider another coup like the one he survived in 2002. One close aide, Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, said the militia already is 120,000 strong and could grow to 200,000.

Chavez opponents call those figures grossly exaggerated, but they’re still alarmed that government loyalists are being armed across the country. They also condemn the more than $4 billion that Mr. Chavez has spent on Russian weapons, including guns, helicopters and Sukhoi fighter jets that now sometimes thunder over Caracas.

The militia “is a personal army, a Praetorian Guard,” said retired Rear Adm. Elias Buchszer, a Chavez opponent. Despite Mr. Chavez’s talk about repelling a U.S. invasion, he said, the militia is really aimed at maintaining control, keeping him in power and “making the country fear that if anything is done, the militiamen are going to come out.”

Members of the volunteer force range from the unemployed to electricians, bankers and social workers. Most of those interviewed during the training in April said they either benefit from free state education programs or work as public employees. They aren’t paid to attend events but receive about $7 to offset transportation costs.

As part of the training, they lined up at a firing range aiming decades-old, Belgian-made FAL rifles at red bull’s-eyes on paper targets 80 yards away. They practiced reacting to an ambush in the forest, camouflaged with mud-smeared faces and with dry grass stuck in the collars of their uniforms.

They crouched for cover behind a pigpen and fired blanks into an abandoned building in a mock raid on hostage-takers. Spent shells clinked onto the concrete as shots echoed through the building. One man shouted, “All clear.”

Their instructors, including experienced militia troops and army officers, said one objective is to ready them for a war of resistance against an occupying force. They alluded to insurgents battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the militia’s guiding principles is constantly drilled into the group as they salute in unison shouting: “Socialist homeland or death. We will be victorious.”

As troops gathered for one drill, a fake grenade went off and everyone dived to the ground. One woman was led away crying from the shock, and nurses gave her oxygen to calm her.

Most seemed gung-ho for marching in the sun and getting their uniforms sweaty and dirty. Some covered their faces with black dust from the charred earth left by forest fires. They also enjoyed the camaraderie, saying they spent one night hiking and watching a Chinese film.

Several volunteered to shoot mortars and a 106 mm anti-tank cannon.

The cannon shell was loaded, and the air shook with the deafening blast. Troops winced, then erupted into cheers as they were covered in smoke, pumping their fists and shouting: “Viva Chavez.”

Osmaira Pachecho, the housewife who fired the machine gun, said with a giddy laugh that it was “marvelous” fun taking aim at the straw dummy dressed up in a military uniform. Growing serious, she said she doesn’t like to imagine killing anyone, especially not fellow Venezuelans.

“But if they attack us from some other place, I think we’re prepared for it,” said Mrs. Pachecho, who is studying to be a teacher in a free government program and fervently admires Mr. Chavez. “We’re prepared to support the armed forces if they need us.”

Mr. Chavez addressed an estimated 35,000 militia members at an outdoor rally on April 13, the eighth anniversary of his return to power after the failed 2002 coup.

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