Venezuela Spends Week Preparing for U.S. Invasion

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is preparing his population for what he claims is a potential U.S. invasion. In the past week, Venezuelans held exercises that simulated the arrival of a strong invasion force. Critics say Chavez is whipping up fear for entirely domestic political purposes.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

We have another story that may have slipped by this past week. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, was preparing his nation for what he claims is a possible U.S. invasion. With oil revenues rising, Venezuela is modernizing its military to make sure it will be prepared for any eventuality.

Clara Long has our report.

CLARA LONG reporting:

In the coastal town of La Guaira, a group of fishermen working with the military shows the press how they might transport weapons clandestinely during an enemy invasion. They would hide them underneath statues of the Virgin Mary. The fishermen march somberly, carrying three gauze-covered effigies while a woman says a prayer.

The base of each statue hides ten rifles and a grenade launcher. Margarita Romero(ph) is a teacher from the area who is participating in the procession. She says drills like these help Venezuelans prepare for aggression.

Ms. MARGARITA ROMERO (Teacher): (Through Translator) We don't want war but we know we have to be prepared. It's terrible to make war in order to have peace.

LONG: The procession is part of a week-long exercise to simulate the arrival of a strong invading force and its successful defeat by a smaller Venezuelan force acting in cooperation with the population. In this simulation the bad guys have general issue Army uniforms and patrol the city streets in tanks.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

LONG: The good guys are dressed as civilians and mix with the population. Venezuelan officials talk of preparing in this way for asymmetric warfare where the conventional resources of the invading army vastly outstrip those of the opposing force. Tom Baranauskas is the Latin American analyst at Forecast International, a U.S. based defense consulting firm. He says that historically Latin America has been very concerned over the possibility of U.S. intervention. But in the case of Venezuela, he says, the threat is exaggerated.

Mr. TOM BARANAUSKAS (Analyst, Forecast International): It's a lot of rhetoric. A war of words. I tend to look beyond the rhetoric from both sides to the actual actions.

LONG: Baranauskas points out that Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the United States. Fernando Ochoa is a former Venezuelan defense minister and an opponent of President Hugo Chavez. Ochoa suggests the talk of invasion may be motivated more by politics than military necessity.

Mr. FERNANDO OCHOA (Former Venezuelan Defense Minister):(Through Translator) I have the impression that this is more oriented towards internal politics to strengthen nationalism. To say, oh look, Venezuela is at risk and they could invade us.

LONG: Chavez and the Bush administration are engaged in a war of words with the self-styled socialist revolutionary claiming Washington wants to oust him or invade. Washington accuses Chavez of eroding democracy and interfering with regional politics. Last weekend Venezuela received its first installment of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles ordered from Moscow. The 54 million dollar deal also includes ammunition and a technology transfer agreement. Venezuelan officials say that agreement will allow their country to manufacture the Russian rifles in a few years' time.

On Sunday during his weekly television program, Chavez welcomed the arms delivery.

HUGO CHAVEZ (President of Venezuela): This delivery, he says, will guarantee the sovereignty and defense of the Venezuelan territory. We aren't going to attack anyone, but no one should mess with us.

President George Bush expressed concern again this week that Chavez's actions are destabilizing the region, but American officials have denied repeatedly any plans to attack Venezuela. Nonetheless, some Venezuelans are not convinced. Back in the town of La Guaira, Commander Jose Minuos(ph) coordinates the invasion simulation.

Mr. JOSE MINUOS (Commander):(Through Translator) It's not normal in Venezuela for tanks to pass by neighborhoods or in front of houses. But this exercise, it starts to be normal. This gets people used to an irregular situation, to a situation in which the country is under threat.

LONG: Teacher Margarita Romero says the U.S. makes no secret of its military strength and aggression.

Ms. ROMERO: (Through Translator) The Americans display their force and we also want to show our force and prepare ourselves.

LONG: Romero says she hopes this week's invasion simulations will show the world that Venezuelans will defend their country. For NPR News, this is Clara Long in Caracas.

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