Sunday, March 20, 2005

NY Times : : Chavez Followers Get Paramilitary Training

Gee, and we hadn't even promised not to invade yet...

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Chanting ``fatherland or death,'' dozens of President Hugo Chavez's supporters lined up in formation, vowing to defend the country if the United States tries to invade. Led by an army reservist, the volunteers in black caps said their numbers would swell in the coming months.

See also: Venezuelan Leader Frustrates US

The United States, frustrated by frequent attacks from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is looking for ways to support opponents of the leftist leader in elections next year, US officials and analyst said.


Blogger Management said...

Chavez Followers Get Paramilitary Training
The Associated Press

Thursday 17 March 2005

Caracas, Venezuela - Chanting "fatherland or death," dozens of President Hugo Chavez's supporters lined up in formation, vowing to defend the country if the United States tries to invade. Led by an army reservist, the volunteers in black caps said their numbers would swell in the coming months.

The start of training for "Popular Defense Units" marks a more confrontational stage in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

Chavez is tightening his personal security, accusing Washington of backing a plot to assassinate him. While U.S. officials seek to isolate a leader who has become a symbol of anti-American sentiment in Latin America, Chavez is warning he will cut off oil exports to the United States if it supports any attempt to overthrow him.

The socialist leader called last month for creation of civilian groups to help defend Venezuela if necessary; in one poor Caracas neighborhood, about 120 supporters began military-style drills last month even though they have not been issued weapons.

"If an invasion comes, we know what we're going to do," said Manuel Mayan, 36, saluting during training in a parking lot Tuesday night, the first attended by international journalists.

Other similar units will begin training soon in at least two nearby neighborhoods, said Sgt. 2nd Class Ricardo Nahmens.

Some of the men and women - street cleaners, retired teachers and the unemployed - wore military patches on their sleeves, even though they are civilians and they have yet to obtain formal recognition from the government. They consider themselves part of the army reserve forces.

"Reserve! The guarantee of national defense and security!" they chanted, wearing black caps and standing at attention.

Organizer Rafael Cabrices said the group eventually plans to train with weapons to prepare "to defend the fatherland." But Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said only the military is authorized to carry out armed training and that officials would investigate the group's activities.

The training is only one sign of growing tensions between Chavez and U.S. officials, who have traded increasingly sharp accusations.

State TV shows video of U.S. officials criticizing Chavez, while playing the "Star Wars" theme music for the "evil empire." Many observers say a U.S. invasion is highly unlikely, but Chavez's warnings have struck a chord on the streets of the capital, where graffiti now declares: "If they kill Chavez, he will return as millions."

Chavez has said his socialist "revolution" for the poor is by nature "anti-imperialist," claiming that has angered the United States. Chavez, a former army paratroop commander who is up for re-election next year, has said U.S. plans to support the Venezuelan opposition are an "obscene interference."

The president has been busy signing oil deals with countries from China to India. Analysts suggest he is lining up alternative allies through oil deals to diminish Venezuela's reliance on the United States, its top oil buyer.

"Venezuela will now help the Southern Hemisphere countries with its oil more than it has helped the United States," Chavez said in India this month.

"Chavez has already spent years weaving a clever and intelligent network of interests in the Americas and the rest of the world to accept this challenge," lawyer Italo Luongo Blohm wrote Wednesday in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. "Chavez is preparing for a conflict."

Information Minister Andres Izarra denied such an agenda, telling reporters Chavez's government "wants to re-establish the best relations with the United States" and hopes there is "a change in policy that is aimed at strengthening, normalizing relations with Venezuela."

It remains unclear how the tensions could affect the oil market. Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, and top Venezuelan officials have pledged to continue supplying the rising U.S. demand.

U.S. diplomats say they are concerned about Venezuelan democracy, freedom of the press, Chavez's stance toward leftist Colombian rebels and moves to buy 10 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles from Russia.

Every critical statement by officials of the United States - which Chavez calls "the empire" - has drawn a sharp Venezuelan response.

"Whoever throws a stone at us, we will throw a stone back," Chavez said Sunday. "We will not keep quiet like before, and even less with the Empire."

Chavez last month accused President Bush of backing a plot to kill him, saying "If anything happens to me, forget about Venezuelan oil, Mr. Bush."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the accusations "ludicrous" and also denied Chavez's claim of U.S. involvement in a short-lived coup against him in 2002.

Izarra said Tuesday that Venezuela's presidential guard had boosted security to protect Chavez in response to an assassination plot.

Officials provided few details of the plot, but have previously demanded the United States crack down on Cuban and Venezuelan "terrorists" in Florida who they say are conspiring against Chavez. Izarra said Venezuela is considering legal options after a woman this week called for Chavez's assassination on a Miami television program.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that U.S. concerns about Chavez's government are "shared by many in the region" - which Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel quickly contested.

"The only one that is concerned is the government in Washington," Rangel said.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Management said...

The United States, frustrated by frequent attacks from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is looking for ways to support opponents of the leftist leader in elections next year, US officials and analyst said.

President George W. Bush's administration is annoyed by Chavez, but Washington has not settled on a policy to deal with Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter and the source of 15 percent of US energy needs.

In August, Chavez fought off a referendum seeking his ouster after massive protests and strikes organized by his political opponents. Venezuela will hold a presidential election in 2006.

The former paratrooper has accused Bush of plotting to have him assassinated and of being behind a coup that toppled him for nearly 48 hours in April 2002.

The European Union, Venezuela's Andean neighbors, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States should "find a way to keep engaged in Venezuela," said a senior US official who requested anonimity.

They should also "keep reminding Chavez that what he did was win a referendum, not be crowned the emperor or king, and remind the opposition that they lost an election and they have to begin to prepare for the elections that are going to come forward," the official said.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said US officials dealing with Latin American "don't know what to do" about Chavez.

"There is much frustration, but there has been no decision on what path to take," Shifter said, although he said some in the US government probably want "stronger answers" to Venezuela's attacks.

"The best way for the United States to deal with Venezuela is through a regional policy, but the problem is that other countries are reluctant because they distrust Washington's motives," he added.

Miguel Diaz, a US-South American relations expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the region's governments, especially the leftist leaders of Brazil and Uruguay, "should be a little more worried about what Chavez represents."

In addition to accusing Washington of plotting to topple him, Chavez has called Bush a "jerk" and the US government a "mafia of assassins."

He also slammed US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an "illiterate" whom he would not marry, although he said the chief US diplomat dreams of him at night.

"At this point given his rhetoric and given his actions it's very hard to see how we're going to be able to improve the tone of the relationship, because he has a tendency to say whatever comes to mind, and to be very insulting, and that's a strange way to do a rapprochement," the senior US official said.

Washington is concerned by Chavez's decision to buy 100,000 AK-47 rifles from Russia, fearing the weapons could end up in the hands of leftist Colombian rebels or lead to an arms race in the region.

The head of US diplomacy in the region, Roger Noriega, listed Washington's concerns last week in Congress.

"His efforts to concentrate power at home, his suspect relationship with destabilizing forces in the region and his plans for arms purchases are causes of major concern," Noriega said.

"We will support democratic elements in Venezuela so they can fill the political space to which they're entitled," he said, without elaborating on how the US government would help.

But, Diaz said, "the big secret is that the United States cannot do much regarding Venezuela."

Venezuela sells about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, which amounts to 60 percent of its production.

"We still depend on its oil, but I think we are in a race to see who can become independent from the other first. This energy divorce has already started," he said.

6:01 AM  

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