Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Informational interviews" 

Its been known for a while that the anti-war movement has been under intense survellience and has been infiltrated by the police. For example, in New York during the Republican convention in 2004 not only did they restrict where protesters could march and vidietape everyone who did march, but they had undercover police who posed as demonstrators only to jump out and arrest people when the oppurtinity presented itself. Such is the current state of civil liberties in the United States.

Venezuela has probably been an issue flying below the radar screen of domestic law enforcement. Not anymore:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. academic accused the FBI on Friday of trying to silence his criticism of Bush administration policy toward Venezuela, further straining ties between Washington and the major oil supplier.

Venezuela seized on agents' questioning of the professor, condemning it in a statement as "a violation of the freedoms of expression, thought and academic inquiry, and ... a desperate attempt to link Venezuela to terrorism."

The FBI did not address the accusations directly but said in a statement it had conducted an "informational interview" ofMiguel Tinker Salas, a history professor at Pomona College, a liberal arts university in California.

The State Department said the United States did not have a policy of targeting academics critical of U.S. policy.

Tinker Salas said two agents of an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned him this week at his offices about his contacts with the Venezuelan Embassy.

"The intent was to intimidate," the Venezuelan-born American citizen told Reuters.

He said the agents asked if his opinions about U.S. policy had been influenced by the embassy and told him Venezuelans living in the United States were "of interest" to the task force, whose job is to prevent terrorist attacks.

Jonathan Knight, who directs a national program to protect academic freedom, said that if the allegations were true, it appeared the FBI wanted to silence a professor using tactics that he had not seen since the persecution of academics perceived as pro-Communist in the 1950s.

"A faculty member being confronted by two law enforcement agents could have a cautionary effect because what he can expect is that the U.S. government is watching his views," said Knight of the American Association of University Professors. "This is treading very much on his freedom."

Tinker Salas, whose recent work includes a book analyzing Venezuelan politics since President Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, said he would not be cowed.

Notice that this is happening under the terrorism pretext. The officers were from the "Joint Terrorism Task Force". Yes of course, people who support the betterment of a country in Latin America are very likely to go around blowing up buildings in the U.S. Or maybe its that many of us who support what Chavez is trying to do in Venezuela also oppose the U.S. war in Iraq and don't buy the company line that Iraqis who resist the occupation are terrorists. I guess that "you are with us, or against us" bullshit also applied to everyone in the U.S. too. Well, it is just as absurd here in the U.S. as it was abroad. And just to help out these officers so they don't waste their time in the future: If you are looking for terrorists you might want to check out 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon. I think you'll find plenty of terrorists and terrorist apologists there to keep you busy.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Where the snakes are 

Contrary to popular perception not all Venezuelan reptiles live in eastern Caracas. As this British reporter found out there are some to be found in the interior of the country (but of course, of a more benign type):

It can't be much fun being Eunectes murinus. When she's not being eyed up as a supplier of next autumn's range of handbags, the poor anaconda is being 'papped' by macho tourists hoping she'll play a cameo role in their holiday snaps. No wonder they have a notoriously nasty temper, especially with tourists and scary animals getting increasingly cosy these days.

When I was 10, the apex of adventure was the sticker on my dad's Cortina: 'We've seen the lions of Longleat!' Nowadays, every tourist tickles tarantulas, apparently.

But snakes are different. The green anaconda (right) averages about six metres in length and, at up to a record 545kg, weighs as much as 10 men. The longest recorded example was shot in Brazil, in 1960, and measured just under eight-and-a-half metres. I was told to pack a wide-angle lens and leave the grappling bit to the guides.

We're climbing the forest trail to the Angel Falls, in Canaima National Park, which is every travel agent's suggested serving of Venezuela. And quite right too: at 16 times the height of Niagara Falls, your first sighting of the world's tallest water chute is a moment of true skin-prickling excitement.

But with no convenient highway for hundreds of kilometres, the Angel Falls are no easy thrill. Once you've made the two-hour flight from Caracas southeast to Canaima, the popular cop-out is to bag a 45-minute fly-by photo opportunity. Arguably, that's a logical approach, given that the falls are named after Jimmie Angel, a prospecting nutcase who landed a light plane on the summit in 1936. The plane sank in a bog and he had to make the near-vertical descent on foot. His wife, who'd unfortunately jumped in for the ride, was presumably not impressed: it took them 15 days to get back to civilisation.

I chose a different route: a 4.30am-start, a four-hour canoe ride, a two-hour mountain trek, the whole shebang again in reverse and, come nightfall, legs like Bambi. It reads like a menu of misery, but I had been promised that it would be a much more meaningful option than flying. And to satisfy my own peculiar fixation, there was a chance of my first snake encounter.

Anacondas, it turns out, are rather partial to deer, but anything warm-blooded will do. Antonio reveals the fang-shaped scars on his arms and hands. He wears them like medals; they are proof of past skirmishes where camera-wielding visitors got lucky. This particular brand of boa's predigestive technique is to deck you with a hammer blow and then, while you're thinking, 'Now, where did I pack that antihistamine?', loop you in its infamous death curl. From there on, there's no violence. It merely tightens each time you exhale, like some horribly misunderstood lover. When you've stopped breathing, but are still technically alive, it unhooks its jaws and eats you. Headfirst.

Only two tourists have died on this journey in the past few years - thankfully (maybe) from heart failure. It's certainly not quite business-class, piloting a coccyx-coshing 65km through white-knuckle rapids and on through two tributary rivers of the Orinoco. Deep in the Devil's Canyon, a sweat-bath climb through the forest awaits, your goal being the point at which the water from the falls, most of it vaporised, lands on the mountain's partially exposed midriff. Worst of all, you don't even get knives and forks with your lunch.

What you do get is a moment of heady exhilaration. 'Look up there,' Antonio laughs. I shield my eyes from the sun and marvel at the waterfall's absurd height. 'No!' he urges, 'Up there.' Silly me: the true summit looms higher still, well above the cloud layer. I'm so amazed, I can no longer feel my aching feet.

For full-on ophidiophobia, I was told to fly back to Caracas and switch Cessnas, heading southwest for Venezuela's Los Llanos flood plain. While Canaima has anacondas, Los Llanos is anacondas.

On the map, the journey looks simple enough, but be warned: while not quite totally run on the traditional mañana principle, Venezuelan domestic flight timetables are operated in apparent secrecy and, for the most part, characterised by prolonged periods of inactivity punctuated by intermittent spells of things nearly happening.

The vast Llanos flood plain has a rainfall chart that makes Manchester look arid. With 1.5m of rain per annum and temperatures that can soar to 54ºC, its flora and fauna have gone into biological hyperdrive. On my first night at the Hato El Cedral ranch, a four-hour taxi ride from Barinas airport, I counted three different types of cricket, two rare spiders and a translucent frog. All in my shower tray. This is a bug-eat-tourist world, where ugly nocturnal dragonflies slide casually down the back of your neck while any square centimetre of untreated skin is instantly and ruthlessly located by mossies and midges.

But, boy, it's exciting. On this ranch alone, some 20,000 cattle jostle for space among 14,000 capybaras (giant rodents), more than 250 bird species and 2,000 crocodiles - some of them car-sized Orinocos. But I'm here for the snakes. For our first morning's hunt, Alex Nagy, the ranch's wildlife expert, shows me his special anaconda-rousing equipment: a pair of Hunter wellies and a stout stick. We drive out along one of the levees that radiate from the farm and stop at a point where he's recently spotted anacondas sidling up to a capybara and her plump clutch of young.

There's no mystery to it. He wades out into the marshland and starts probing. I watch from dry land, berating my phrase book's absence of a neat translation for that strangely appropriate Dad's Army line, 'They don't like it up 'em'.

But really, they don't. An hour's probing later, something hisses among the water hyacinths. Alex waits as it heads away from the bank and, dropping his stick, grabs the disappearing tail, dragging the beast onto dry land. Ramon, his assistant, goes for the head and, approaching from outside its field of vision, pounces on the powerful jaw muscles. Not wanting to spoil my walking boots, I wait at a reasonable distance and fumble with my B&Q tape measure. Between us, we have a go at getting a rough measurement, but the wretched tape runs out at 3m. It's hard to tell with the thing wriggling around, but there's at least another metre to go.

Still, it's all the convincing I need. Alex says one measuring 5.5m on the slither scale was recorded just days ago. It took three men to hold it down, so I'm glad it's not the same one. At the given command, they jump away and 'my' anaconda slopes back into the muddy water. In all the commotion, I realise I have failed again as a true tourist - my camera is still sitting in the truck. But I console myself with the thought that the scariest things are always slightly off-camera. And I'm happy. After all, I'm the one that got away.

Now, I hope this doesn't deter anyone from visiting Venezuela. I've been all over the Gran Sabana and many other parts of Venezuelas countryside and have yet to run into any anacondas. And anyways I don't think they are all that dangerous as long as you keep your distance.

Running into opposition supporters is unfortunately a ver real risk and can be quiet a traumatic, if not outright dangerous experience. Here are some tips for avoiding them:

1) In Caracas do not go east of the Chacaoito metro station

2) When traveling within Venezuela go by bus, not plane - airports tend to be crawling with them

3) Do not even think of getting into political convesations with store owners. They are so blinded with hatred towards Chavez due to his tax collection efforts they become very belligerent.

4) Do not travel to Margarita and DEFINITELY do not go to Los Roques.

Follow these basic precautions and you should be fine.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The pot calling the kettle black 

As if their drug certification process weren't absurd enough today the U.S. State Department came out with their Human Rights report. They write up an individual report for each country detailing all their alledged abuses.

Venezuela was included in this and the report was interesting reading. Unfortunately the report was pretty sloppy - probably not much more accurate than their reports on Iraq's WMDs before the 2003 invasion. For example here are a couple of claims from the report:

"Amendments to the penal code in March make insulting the president punishable by 6 to 30 months in prison"

"Human rights groups criticized the March penal code revision for the strict penalties it imposes on some forms of peaceful demonstration. The new law outlaws pot-banging protests often identified with opponents of the government and punishes street closures with up to eight-year prison terms."

These are straight out lies. Venezuela's Penal Code has had these laws for decades, probably before Chavez was even born. So to imply that they are "new" and point to them as indications of the current governments tendency toward repression is completely false and duplicitous. Moreover, this government has never prosecuted anyone under those laws.

There was also a little gem:

"Although the law prohibits such actions, security forces continued to infringe on citizens' privacy rights by searching homes without warrants, for example during anticrime sweeps in poor neighborhoods. There were reports of illegal wiretapping and invasion of privacy by the security forces."

Kind of funny that they mention that when the U.S. has been wiretapping whomever it pleases for years now without bothering to get court orders. Do as we say, not as we do, I guess. But that did make me curious so I decided to go look up the report on the United States assuming that surely that violation must have been noted in the report on the United States. Much to my chagrin I discovered there is no report on the United States. I guess that saves them from having to discuss human rights abuses in the United States like police killings, executions of mentally retarded people, police infiltration of anti-war groups, racial discrimination, vigilantes on the border shooting people who try to cross, jailing journalists who refuse to divulge sources, etc.

Whats even funnier is they also exempted themselves when it came to Iraq. They did do a write up on many of the alledged human rights violations there - but only those committed by Iraqis. There was not a word about U.S. troops killing, arresting, torturing or otherwise violation human rights!!! Not a word about how many journalists have been shot dead by U.S. troops!! In fact, there is no mention in the report that there are even U.S. troops occupying the country!! So I guess Americans somehow get a Monopoly like "get out of jail" pass when it comes to human rights. Talk about double standards.

Clearly, these reports are barely worth the paper they are written. They are simply a propoganda excercise in which the U.S. attacks whoever its enemy of the day is.

Whats more, the premise of the report is completely flawed. Are there violations of human rights in Venezuela? Of course there are, as there are in any country. But to take these violations and imply that the country is somehow unfree or its people repressed is patently absurd. As anyone who has been to Venezuela knows nothing could be further from the truth. Not everyone can travel to Venezuela and its hard to get an appreciation of this if one has never been there but it really is the case that there are probably few, if any, countries in the world where the government and the president are so frequently and roundly, even violently, criticized. You really do have to see it to believe it. And that seems to be what happened with with this first time visitor:

Venezuela on the right track under Chavez
By John Hofer
Published: Monday, March 6, 2006

After spending more than two weeks in Venezuela, it's clear to me that freedom and democracy there are alive, well and thriving.

I arrived on Jan. 23, the 48th anniversary of the overthrow of the military dictatorship. President Hugo Chavez's supporters and opponents were out in force, taking advantage of the holiday and their freedom to demonstrate.

Two weeks later, the seventh anniversary of Chavez's inauguration provided another opportunity for demonstrations. Police presence was minimal, a marked contrast to the intimidating, ironclad security that is standard for similar events in Washington, D.C.

I was in Caracas for the World Social Forum, a gathering of more than 2,000 groups representing social movements and nongovernmental organizations. I was hoping to connect with people who could help me apply my business experience to economic development in Latin America. I wanted to make my own judgments about the changes occurring in Venezuela.

No one showed the least hesitation to talk about Chavez. One fellow in the Caracas metro even walked up to me and asked about him. Not waiting for a response, he said, "I hate Chavez."

A bus driver said that ordinary people get more respect now that Chavez is in office. Many offered complex opinions, citing the good and the bad, winners and losers. Many talked about disliking Chavez's tendency to talk too much, a view I share about politicians in general.

A few days later, in a heated interview on one of the private television networks, an opposition figure was visibly agitated about elements of Chavez's elections law. At one point, the interviewer asked, "Are you threatening Chavez?"

The guest responded, "No, I'm putting him on notice." I could only sit in awe, trying to remember the last time an American opposition politician showed such gumption.

"It's clear to me that freedom and democracy there are alive, well and thriving." Indeed.


Pumpers remorse? 

In spite of what my hopes, and Venezuela's hopes, were OPEC has decided not to cut production. Essentially, Saudi Arabia, Nigeriam, Qatar, and, especially, Kuwait all insisted on maintaining current production levels. It didn't take long for prices to dip:

NEW YORK - Oil prices fell to about $60 a barrel Wednesday after OPEC's president said the group will keep output intact and the U.S. Department of Energy reported a sharp rise in crude stocks last week.

But the worse may be yet to come:

Meanwhile Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration said U.S. crude stocks rose by 6.8 million barrels in the week ending March 3 to 335.1 million barrels — the highest level since 1999.

The increase was attributed to a rise in imports and a fall in refinery use, due to seasonal maintenance, which created a back-up.

"It was an extremely large build in crude stocks — it was way above any expectations," said Tom Bentz, analyst at BNP Paribas Commodity Futures in New York.


Kuwait's oil minister Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah — who believes geopolitical tensions are adding $5 to $8 to each barrel — said he thinks prices will drop below $60 a barrel by the end of June, but are likely to rebound to the $60 range in the fourth quarter.

Markets were also keeping an eye on the situation in Nigeria, the world's 11th-largest oil producer, where recent attacks have reduced the country's production by 455,000 barrels a day, about 20 percent of its output.

It's unclear if the recent bearish sentiment in energy markets will last, but Bentz said he doubts crude-oil prices will break below $55. "Long-term, we're still in a big uptrend as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Market bears are arguing that inventories are high, demand isn't as strong as they predicted, and OPEC is still pumping at record levels. Market bulls, however, say that because of the United States' warm winter and high prices after Hurricane Katrina, demand has appeared low and its potential to surge has been underestimated, Flynn said.

Also, he added, just because OPEC didn't decide to cut production this week doesn't mean they won't do it later if prices tumble. "Oil ministers are going to have pumper's remorse if they see oil prices go below $60 a barrel," he said.

With inventories now hitting a seven year high it is almost certainly true that, as Rafael Ramirez has been saying, OPEC is overproducing by 1 million barrels per day. And if that is indeed the case OPEC countries are very likely to wind up with "pumpers remorse" as oil goes well below $60 in price. About the only good news is that the next OPEC ministers meeting is to be held in Caracas. Maybe that will give Venezuela's ideas more influence. Or maybe a sharp drop in prices will.


Cindy Sheehan would be proud 

Today in Venezuela there is a rally against the U.S. war in Iraq. Thousands are gathering for a march on the U.S. embassy. This is really great to see.

This nice poster says "Enough! We didn't raise our children for you to kill them. Long live peace. Death to war. Bush and the CIA out of Iraq"

This one needs no translation.

"Women for Peace. I dind't raise my children for you to kill them. No to war"

It is very heartening to see this rally. Even if the escualidos can't be bothered to attend because they support the war. In any event, it will be much more heartening if we in the U.S. can finally have a decent anti-war rally next month. After all, the place where an Anti-War movement is really needed is here. And Cindy Sheehan can't do it all by herself.


Whats good for Venezuela is good for G.M. 

A couple of days ago in the comments it was mentioned that automobile sales in Venezuela were up another 41% in February. This is on top of last year which was an all time record year for car sales. With all these cars being sold someone must be making money, and indeed they are. G.M. in particular would seem to be doing quite well:

CARACAS (MarketWatch) -- General Motors Corp.'s (GM) sole vehicle assembly plant in Venezuela has been closed since March 1 due to problems obtaining dollars from the country's currency commission, but will reopen Friday, the company's branch president said Tuesday.
"We expect the closing to last until this Friday," after ten days, Jose Favarin, head of GM in Venezuela told reporters. "We can't pay our suppliers because (the government's) dollar delivery system is not fast enough," he said. He declined to say how much the closing of the plant will end up costing the company in lost sales.
The government's currency commission, known as Cadivi, serves as the state agency in charge of servicing the economy's dollar needs. Companies and individuals must follow an application process with Cadivi to buy dollars for any use.
Favarin said Cadivi has to become more efficient now that the economy is growing at a much higher pace.
GM's 2,700-worker plant can assemble 300 cars a day and Favarin said the company hopes to produce 100,000 vehicles this year. GM is investing $21 million to expand operations in 2006.
The car company's sales in the oil-rich country exceeded $1 billion in 2005, Favarin said, and added that sales could rise to anywhere between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion this year.

This was rather stunning news to me. G.M. is doing over a BILLION dollars of business in Venezuela?!?! And its going up to 1.4 billion this year! That must be great news to a company watching its North American business go down the tubes. Quite frankly, I was stunned by the size of G.M.s operations in Venezuela - assembling 300 cars a day and selling 100,000 a year.

In a reversal of the old addage "whats good for G.M. is good for the U.S." maybe we now have what is good for Venezuela is good for G.M. I wonder if the CEO of G.M., Rick Wagoner, has a portrait of Chavez on his wall.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The unseen part of Venezuela's housing program 

Venezuela's housing program has been much discussed - from the government consistently missing its targets for new housing units to the high quality of what it is building. But there is one part of the housing program that is often completely overlooked. And that is the large subsidies that the government gives to people to purchase housing on the secondary market, i.e. from private developers.

These subsidies take two forms. First there is often a grant amount that is simply given to people to aid in the purchase. Second, the remaining part of the cost of the home is financed at highly preferential rates. Today in Ultimas Noticias they gave the exact numbers for those subsidies:

For people with incomes up to $375 per month they are given a grant of $8,000 and the balance of the purchase cost can be financed with a loan at 4.08% interest (inflation is over 10% so this is really a negative interest rate).

For people with incomes between $375 per month and $750 they get a grant of $6,900 and the rest is financed at an interest rate of 7.08%.

Those who earn from $750 per month to $2,076 are not given a grant but get a preferential interest rate of 9.98% (still negative interest).

The value of any homes purchased under these programs is capped at $22,300 which will buy a comfortable home in Venezuela.

So when one sees that the construction sector of the Venezuelan economy is booming this is one of the governmental programs that is helping to bring that about.


This is what repression looks like 

One of the principal assertions of the Venezuelan opposition is that the Chavez government is somehow repressive and denys Venezuelan citizens basic rights. In fact, they often go so far as to complain that Venezuela violates human rights - the fact that when they took those allegations to court they were found lacking not withstanding.

What would real repression and real human rights violations look like? Maybe something like this:

Amnesty attacks 'dire' Iraq abuse
Thousands of detainees held in Iraq are still being denied basic human rights with reports of torture rife, Amnesty International has said.
It said its interviews with ex-inmates across Iraq had shown the lessons of the Abu Ghraib jail scandal appeared to have been ignored.

The US and UK insist prisoners are treated to international standards.

Iraq's acting human rights minister admitted abuse was continuing but that the government was trying to curb it.

'Gross dereliction'

Amnesty's report, Beyond Abu Ghraib: Detention and Torture in Iraq, says: "Nearly three years after the US and allied forces invaded Iraq... the human rights situation in the country remains dire."

"Not only are prisoners being held in defiance of international law but the allegations of torture continue to pour out of Iraq "
Kate Allen
Amnesty International

The report says both the multinational forces and Iraqi authorities must take urgent steps to stop abuses if there is to be any hope of halting Iraq's rise in violence and sectarianism.

Amnesty says in its 48-page report that thousands of Iraqis are being held without charge or trial.

More than 200 detainees have been imprisoned for more than two years and nearly 4,000 for longer than a year, it reports.

According to US military authorities, 14,000 Iraqi were in the custody of the international forces in Iraq in November 2005


Sunday, March 05, 2006

A marked man 

Chavez has often made note of the fact that his life is in jeapordy as he has many powerful, and sometimes unbalanced, enemies both inside and outside of Venezuela. The opposition often ridicules these comments saying they are the product of Chavez's over active imagination. Sure, Pat Robertson advocated Chavez's assasination, but he is just a kook too, says the opposition. Yet none other than Foreign Policy magazine lists Chavez as one of seven figures world wide who are "Marked Men". They even give details of how he would likely be killed and what the repurcussions would be:

President Hugo Chávez, (Venezuela)

Why? Chávez’s long list of enemies includes the Bush administration, many Latin American leaders, and televangelist Pat Robertson. They loathe Chávez for embracing such groups as Colombia’s FARC rebels and his gratuitous anti-Americanism.

Who? Rogue factions of the military, which Chávez purged in 2002. Or a member of the former regime (some of whom now reside in Miami). In any case, the United States would be blamed.

How? An assassin at a public rally, or a behind-closed-doors shooting by a military official.

Then what? A loyal member of the “Chavismo” movement would likely rise to claim the mantle.

Worst case: The assassination empowers the radical wing of the Chávez movement. Venezuela’s considerable oil production sputters to a halt, either from chaos or a deliberate shutdown from Chavismo members convinced the United States is behind the assassination (or who declare U.S. involvement out of political expediency.)

So while the opposition self servingly says Chavez's assisination worries are all non-sense even the gringo Foreign Policy establishment notes Chavez is one of the those most "at risk" of assasination.


Another thing to blame on Chavez 

As if it weren't bad enough that Chavez has auto sales setting all time records in Venezuela and cluttering up city streets, now we have this:

Puerto La Cruz - Luis Manuel Delgado dreamed of waking up and getting a pickup truck with 0 miles. After a lot of work and effort he saved up the money to buy one. But, he didn't count on another obstacle: the lack of vehicles in auto dealerships.

In a survery that El Tiempo did in differnt auto dealerships in the north of Anzoategui we confirmed that the demand for cars exceeds the number available for sale by about 55%.

The general manager of Chrysler, located on the Intercomunal de Lecheria Avenue, said that he has about 18 vehicles available monthly for sale when he needs 40 to cover demand.

"Production isn't sufficient, all the models run out quickly."

Similiar comments were made by Bibiana Soria, manager of the Volkswagen dealership, located in the Crucero de Lecheria. He stated that he gets about 60 purchase requests per month but only has about 40 vehicles.

Fiat manager, Avila, said that he recieves about 70 inquiries per day but has a waiting list of a month to purchase a car.

Paula Gomez, a public accountant, said that he has wanted to buy a car for the last month but all dealerships she has gone to have said they don't have any.

"I went to Ford and there isn't any model available and the waiting lists are enourmas."

Imagine the horror. Thanks to this bastard Chavez having the economy humming your average escualido can have to wait for months just to buy a new car!! If that doesnt' revitalize the opposition and get people back out in the streets I don't know what will.


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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