Tags: Chavez | Followers | Vow | Defend | Country | Against | U.S.

Chavez Followers Vow to Defend Country Against U.S. Invasion

Wednesday, 16 March 2005 12:00 AM

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.


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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...
Wednesday, 16 March 2005 12:00 AM
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