Mike Ceaser / Globe and Mail – 2005-05-26 08:44:09
CARACAS (April 13, 2005) — When President Hugo Chavez called for Venezuelans to defend his “Bolivarian revolution for the poor,” 44-year-old clothing merchant Olimpia Hung responded. “We already lived one experience,” she said, referring to Mr. Chavez’s brief ouster in an abortive 2002 coup. “It must not happen again. Fatherland or death!”
Ms. Hung’s sessions with the neighbourhood Popular Defence Unit have left her sore but fit. On a recent warm Caracas evening, a group of about a dozen civilian men and women in their 20s and 30s marched stiffly in black caps, dark pants and white shirts across an empty lot to their commander’s shouts while a group of teenagers listened to a talk about the dangers of imperialism.
As the citizen militias train, Venezuela is stocking up on weapons — 100,000 AK-47s from Russia, and military ships and planes from Brazil and Spain. Mr. Chavez has vowed to organize a military reserve of more than 1.5 million people — 6 percent of his country’s population.
Venezuela Has One Thing in Common with Iraq: Oil
Venezuelan leaders say the reserve and the arms purchases are purely defensive, but the militaristic tone coming out of Caracas is sparking concern in the United States and neighbouring Colombia.”What in the world [is the threat] that Venezuela sees that makes them want to have all those weapons?” US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked last week. The answer, according to Mr. Chavez, is an invasion by the United States, Venezuela’s largest trading partner and the destination for most of its petroleum exports.
Most analysts dismiss the idea as preposterous, but Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper, has made the prospect a frequent theme of his speeches. The Americans “will bite the dust of defeat,” he predicted in a February speech, saying he is sure the White House plans to kill him. “We need to get ready for an asymmetric war, and show our foes that they will regret an invasion,” he told Venezuelans recently on his weekly television and radio program.
The Threat of Invasion
The threat of invasion is also the preoccupation of Rafael Cabrices, the leader of Ms. Hung’s Popular Defence Unit, located in an empty lot at the end of a quiet residential street and part of a government-sponsored self-help organization.”Bush has nothing to lose” by invading, Mr. Cabrices warned, speculating that Washington might use Colombian forces to invade by proxy.
The paunchy, greying 60-year-old was a polarizing figure in Venezuela, even before he launched the paramilitary training. During the coup that briefly unseated Mr. Chavez in April, 2002, he was filmed firing a pistol from a downtown bridge.
Mr. Cabrices and the other bridge gunmen were jailed for a year, then cleared. Although 17 demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured that day, the episode made Mr. Cabrices a hero among Mr. Chavez’s supporters. But to the President’s opponents, he represents the impunity and violence they accuse the government of promoting.
In his office, decorated with posters of Mr. Chavez, Che Guevara and independence hero Simon Bolivar, Mr. Cabrices said his followers don’t have weapons, but he freely acknowledged that they want them. He paused to ask an interviewer about suppliers. “For defence, one needs arms,” he said. “It’s logical.”
Not everyone feels that way, however. General Alfredo Rangel, who heads the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota, suggested that the Venezuelan reserves’ real purpose will be to suppress domestic dissent — and that they will end up being armed with the military’s surplus rifles.”It’s most likely that Chavez is copying Cuba,” Gen. Rangel said.
Even Jose Luis Hernandez, a security guard who works near the militia’s training ground, said he has doubts. “Many of them are children. They are preparing their minds for war. It doesn’t seem right.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.