Venezuela Prepares Military for the Possibility of a U.S. Invasion

Venezuela has begun to train military reservists based on lessons from the war in Iraq. President Hugo Chavez has been warning Venezuelans that there is a possibility the United States will invade their country. U.S. officials have repeatedly tried to dismiss these fears.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The president of Venezuela last month, had his country begin military training for reservists to fight off a potential attack by its enemies, and by enemies he means us. President Hugo Chavez is helping to recruit millions for the civilian-based forces. That's more than any other country in the hemisphere, including the United States. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has just come back from Caracas.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Among the early morning joggers in the tony eastern park in Caracas, you can hear the shouts of military drilling commands. It's a Saturday, but dozens of teenage students are marching in formation. Miguel Carlasco(ph) is among them.

Mr. MIGUEL CARLASCO (Teenage Military Trainee): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he and his classmates drill every weekend because the Ministry of Education requires it. That requirement has been around for a long time for students in public school, but now there's more pressure being put on students to attend.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Across the city at the sprawling defense ministry complex, another kind of training is going on near a firing range. Dressed in white t-shirts and blue jeans, men and women crawl through an obstacle course holding sticks that are meant to simulate guns.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A military officer in a ski mask urges them on. Some are quite portly and are clearly having trouble keeping up. The recruits decline to have their interviews recorded, but they said they were participating in President Hugo Chavez's National Guard program to protect their homeland from the United States.

Many of these recruits are former military who now have a variety of day jobs. President Hugo Chavez says that he wants this civilian National Guard to eventually reach two million, making it the largest reserve forces in the Americas. The people here on this day look like they'd hardly be able to repel a burglary, much less a full-on military attack. Alberto Guerriro(ph) is a political analyst who has just written a book on Chavez's military aspirations.

Mr. ALBERTO GUERRIRO (Author): (Through translator) Chavez has said that every citizen is a powerful combatant and should be trained as such. He's announced many times the possibility of a long confrontation with the United States. Chavez knows that he cannot confront the U.S. in traditional terms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So his citizen warriors are being prepared to fight a so-called asymmetrical war and the lesson book is the war in Iraq. Pick up the magazine Civilian Military Affairs which is targeted at the reservists, and there are no less than five articles about the war. One article is all about the success of the rocket-propelled grenade against U.S. forces. Pictures of burned tanks highlight the message that unconventional forces can do a lot of damage.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a discussion sponsored by a local newspaper on Chavez's militarization plan, the talk was all about America's imminent invasion. It's an idea Chavez has been selling hard and one of the architects of his military plan is General Alberto Muller Rojas.

General ALBERTO MULLER ROJAS (General (Ret.), Presidential High Commando Chief, Venezuela): (Through translator) One always uses the successful experiences that others have had to design your own resistance. In front of a concentration of forces, you use defused forces. Instead of using the war of space, you make it a war over time like Mao Zedong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Muller Rojas says that they have not only studied the Iraq war, but also the conflict in Vietnam and other historic struggles and they've been adapting the techniques.

General MULLER ROJAS: (Through translator) Here we have many simple things, the poison curare, for example. If I touch you with a needle with curare on it, you will die in three seconds--in three seconds--and the United States hurts when its people die.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The general insists that the growing troops are for defensive purposes only. Julio Borges is an opposition leader who was also in attendance at the conference. He says that Chavez is using the Americans as a red herring as the military becomes involved in more and more aspects of Venezuelan life.

Mr. JULIO BORGES (Venezuelan Opposition Leader): It's only an artificial situation in order to have an external enemy and keep far from Venezuela the real internal problems: insecurity, corruption, unemployment, the real problems that Venezuela has.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: U.S. officials have repeatedly dismissed claims that they have any plans to intervene militarily in Venezuela, but the rhetoric on both sides has ratcheted up. American military officials have repeatedly expressed their worry that Chavez will destabilize the region. In his weekly broadcast, Alo Presidente, Chavez in turn said that when American forces came to attack, he himself would shoot an arrow covered in curare at the invading gringo.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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