Sunday, March 05, 2006

A good idea and not a day too soon 

Venezuela is finally beginning full fledged training of its militia:

Around 500,000 Venezuelans will start a four-month military training programme today to turn them into members of the country's territorial guard. They are the first group of a total of 2m Venezuelan civilians who have so far signed up to become armed reservists.

By the summer of 2007, Venezuela is likely to have the largest military reserve in the Americas, which is expected to be almost double the size of that in the United States.

The huge recruitment drive is part of President Hugo Chávez's plan to create a people's army that would answer directly to him in the event of civil unrest or an armed conflict.

General Alberto Muller Rojas, one of the members of the army high command who helped to devise the new thinking in military strategy being adopted by Venezuela's leftwing government, said: "If for example the United States were to invade Venezuela one day, and that's what many people are expecting, the only way we could repel such an attack would be a full scale guerrilla war against the foreign aggressors.

"Our professional army only numbers 80,000 soldiers, so we would need to use civilians like in Iraq to fight the Yankee forces."

Top military officials are confident that a reserve force of 2m, or one in five adults, would be sufficient to dissuade any country from invading Venezuela, the world's fifth biggest oil exporter and fifth biggest supplier of crude oil to the US.

Many of Venezuela's state-owned companies, such as the oil giant PDVSA, have started their own territorial guard units. However, they are being asked to join the formal training programme offered by the armed forces.

Richard Arrais, 40, a marketing executive who works at PDVSA's headquarters in Caracas, has his own office and works in a nine-to-five job Mondays to Fridays. But once a week he and his friends meet up as reservists.

He said: "Since January we've been holding informal meetings to discuss military tactics and to receive courses such as first aid.

"But the training starting this Saturday will be tougher. There will be drill, weapons training and assault courses, as well as a military exercise in the countryside."

Mr Arrais and others like him say they are happy to give up every Saturday in defence of their fatherland and the values of President Chávez's socialist revolution. They believe internal opposition forces and the United States could strike at any moment.

So far service in the territorial guard is voluntary. But the Venezuelan parliament is studying proposals to make it obligatory for all Venezuelan adults to join the territorial guard.

Of course, the United States and the internal opposition to Chavez criticize the creation of the militia as either a sign of militarism or a wasted expense. In realisty it is neither. While the U.S. may not be likely to invade Venezuela tomorrow it is an eventuality that Venezuela must be prepared for, or better yet, able to deter. As recent world events have shown convential military forces have little success against the massive U.S. war machine while irregular forces have been quite successful. Thankfully, people like General Rojas have drawn the necessary conclusions.

There is also clearly another reason wanting a milia. As the attempted coup of April 11, 2002 showed having ones fate depend heavily on the loyalty of a small, and potentially corrupt, officer corp in a professional army is a dangerous proposition. Further, Chavez's opposition has made clear reapedly its willingness to use violence to acheive its ends. Therefore, building up a large, civilian armed force that can counteract both of these threats is only prudent. Probably the biggest single mistake Allende made in Chile was backing down from creating an armed militia - it was considered too provacative by the military and Allende backed down. We all know how that turned out. Chavez is hopefully acting in time to avoid that same mistake.


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