Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez fear that a plan to increase militarization of the populace is a Castro-like tactic to entrench himself.
BY PHIL GUNSON
Special to The Herald
CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez's decision to create a citizens militia and strengthen Venezuela's armed forces to protect his government was condemned by opposition leaders Monday as another ominous turn toward a Cuban-style government.
''If you close your eyes . . . it's like listening to Fidel in the 1960s,'' said former energy minister and Chávez critic Humberto Calderón Berti.
Speaking to a massive rally in downtown Caracas on Sunday, Chávez alleged that the threat of an invasion to topple him, backed by the Venezuelan and Colombian ''oligarchies,'' required that ``every citizen consider himself a soldier.''
He also declared a new ''anti-imperialist'' phase of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, a mishmash of leftist and populists ideologies named after Simón Bolívar, a hero of Venezuela's war of independence from Spain.
He announced a three-pronged program, including an increase in personnel and an additional $10.5 million in funding for the army and national guard. The number of military reservists will be doubled to 100,000, and the new militias will lead to the ``reinvigoration of civilian-military integration.''
This amounts to ''the legalization of his own group, of paramilitaries,'' said opposition legislator Ernesto Alvarenga, noting that Chávez supporters have already formed several illegally armed groups, including the Tupamaros, Carapaicas and the Bolivarian Liberation Force.
The opposition has long accused the president of fomenting armed groups and cultivating an alliance with leftist guerrillas in Colombia. Now they fear these groups are about to be turned on them.
Chávez said the government had already begun selecting retired military officers -- including Cabinet ministers, state governors and legislators -- to ``take part in organizing the people for the defense of the nation.''
Also under discussion by the National Defense Council -- a ministerial advisory body convened last week -- is the creation of as many as three ''theaters of operations'' in the center of the country.
The ''theater'' model, which has been operational on the Colombian border since the pre-Chávez era, involves joint operations by all four branches of the armed forces.
Chávez's speech was triggered by the arrests in Caracas more than a week ago of a large group of alleged Colombian mercenaries, some of them accused of being members of paramilitary groups that fight Colombia's two leftist guerrilla insurgencies.
Chávez has accused elements of the Colombian army, the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command and extremists in the domestic opposition of being responsible for the supposed plot. He insists that the plan was to assassinate him and attack military bases and the presidential palace.
The opposition has for the most part dismissed these claims as fantasy and has suggested that the government is putting on a ''show'' to distract them from their campaign for a recall referendum on Chávez's rule.
''Chávez wants to divert us from our electoral route,'' said Calderón Berti, who belongs to the foreign relations commission of the opposition umbrella group, the Democratic Coordinator.
Pompeyo Márquez, a principal spokesman for the Democratic Coordinator, agreed. Márquez argues that the president senses he is highly vulnerable because he has lost much of his popular support.
The opposition has four days later this month to confirm signatures on the recall petition considered doubtful by the National Electoral Council. Only about 500,000 signatures need to be confirmed to reach the 2.4 million required to force a referendum.
''On June 1 there will be a new [political] reality,'' Márquez said. ``And we are heading for the recall referendum.''
Part of the explanation for the ''discovery'' of a foreign invasion plot, the opposition says, is that Chávez needs to unite the nation against an alleged external threat and -- a more sinister interpretation -- turn political opposition into a form of treason.
''It's exactly what [Manuel] Noriega did in Panama'' in 1988-89, Calderón Berti said.
DOING AS CASTRO DID
The tactic also matches that used by Cuban President Fidel Castro shortly after he seized power in 1959.
Retired Gen. Alberto Muller, a hard-line Chávez supporter who said he considers himself to the left of the government, disagreed.
''I don't perceive any persecution of the domestic adversary,'' Muller said. 'Quite the contrary -- I'd have been much less tolerant in [Chávez'] place.''
On the other hand, political commentator Alberto Garrido, who has written several books on Chávez, says that far from exaggerating, the opposition underestimates the threat that Chávez poses to Venezuelan democracy.
By launching the ''anti-imperialist'' campaign, Garrido argues, the president is telling the opposition that ``you can't be against your country.''