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Chavez's Personal Militia May Have a Dual Mission

Venezuelan force trains to fight the U.S., but experts predict its true purpose will be to control foes at home.

April 16, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Jorge Perez spends his Saturdays learning about first aid, firing automatic weapons and marching in formation alongside students, homemakers and the disabled, often to good-natured shouts of "Yankees out!" and "Kill that gringo!"

The 39-year-old chauffeur, a self-professed patriot and partisan of President Hugo Chavez, said he joined Venezuela's new Territorial Guards volunteer militia to protect his homeland in case the United States "invades us like it did Grenada and Panama."

"I'm no Rambo or Terminator. I'm a Karate Kid who fights to defend family and neighbors," said Perez, an unabashed fan of Hollywood films. "But the United States thinks it's the Roman Empire and can conquer the world."

The militia was created last fall by a law that placed it directly under Chavez's authority, bypassing the military command structure. The new force, combined with a general military buildup that has included purchases of arms, aircraft and naval vessels, is a source of increasing concern to the United States.

Chavez, whose oil revenues could exceed $50 billion this year, is trying to extend his influence in Latin America by giving away medical services and cut-rate fuel to neighbors. The United States is worried that given the fiery leftist's increasingly harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, his outreach could take on a less benign character.

Venezuelan officials insist the Territorial Guards were formed mainly to perform public works and deliver disaster relief and will fight only if foreigners attack the homeland. Militia member Perez and his comrades, they point out, are given weapons training, but not issued weapons.

"The United States went to war in Iraq over lies, and now it is telling lies about the Venezuelan government, so we must be prepared," said Chavez's national security advisor, Alberto Muller Rojas.

"An old Venezuelan saying is that when you see your neighbor's beard on fire, dampen yours so you don't burn up too," Muller said in an interview.

Chavez critics predict that he will use the Territorial Guards as his idol, Fidel Castro, uses the Revolutionary Defense Committees in Cuba: to spy on opponents and deploy them as his personal shock troops. Others expect Chavez to use them to marshal support in the December presidential election.

"What you have with the Territorial Guards is an institution that may be ineffective as a military force but one that could be used as a means for internal control," said a Western diplomat here who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That's what we should be watching for."

Even observers who have tried to strike a middle ground in Venezuela's deeply polarized political debate say they are concerned.

"It's another case of Chavez's militarization of the entire society and concentrating power in his hands," said leftist newspaper publisher Teodoro Petkoff.

His taking personal command of the Territorial Guards is also evidence that Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed coup attempt in 1992, distrusts the Venezuelan military. In April 2002, members of the military led an unsuccessful coup against him. Last year, three former military officers were sentenced to jail terms for alleged involvement in a May 2004 plot against him.

The new militia combines existing professional military reserve units with civilians who were motivated by patriotism, said Lt. Col. Rafael Faria Villalobos, who is training Perez's battalion. It also includes remnants of Chavez's Bolivarian Circles, the neighborhood political cells he formed after taking power in 1999 to galvanize his local supporters. Guard members are paid $7 for each weekend day they train, in a country where one-fifth of all households earn less than $2 a day.

Estimates of how many Venezuelans might ultimately fill the ranks vary from 1 million to many more. Chavez has said he would like to have 10% of Venezuela's 26 million people in uniform to defend the nation against possible aggression, and the Territorial Guards is a logical place to organize them, observers say.

"The Chavez government is convinced that the United States is bent on toppling it," said Michael Shifter, of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "I'm not sure there is much foundation for that belief, but it's the main rationale driving Venezuela's arms buildup and creation of a substantial reserve force."

Military matters have been a growing source of friction between Chavez and the United States. Last year, the U.S. blocked a sale of Spanish patrol boats and aircraft to Chavez that had U.S. components, claiming they constituted a threat in Chavez's hands.

Venezuela said the craft were patrol vehicles with no offensive capability and were to have been used to fight drug trafficking. Then, in February, Chavez announced that the Pentagon had vetoed the sale of four Brazilian jet trainers built with U.S. parts. Chavez said he would buy MIG aircraft from Russia instead.

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