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CHAVEZ PREPARES HIS PEOPLE'S ARMY TO CONFRONT USA
By Sophie Arie in Caracas / The Daily Telegraph
Venezuela begins training a vast army of civilian reserves today to fight off the attack its Left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, says the United States is plotting against it.
The oil-rich state aims to teach up to two million volunteers, from the unemployed to office workers, shop assistants and housewives, basic military skills such as marching in step or shooting to kill.
Hugo Chavez warned Venezuelans to expect an attack from the US
If it reaches that size, the force will be the largest civilian reserve army in the Americas, double the size of Washington's reserves. Its creation will further inflame relations between Venezuela and the US, already characterised by insults and tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.
Mr Chavez, a former paratrooper, has warned repeatedly that the "imperialist enemy" will attempt to crush his socialist revolution in this enormous South American country, which supplies the US with 15 per cent of its oil.
At one military parade Mr Chavez, first elected in 1998, called on his countrymen to prepare for an "assymetric war" against the world's most powerful nation.
"If somebody meddles with Venezuela, they'll repent for 100 centuries," he said. "If we have to fight a war to defend this country, we'll make blood flow."
Many see the populist leader's warnings as just more of his rabble rousing, anti-American rhetoric. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, has dismissed any idea of an attack on Venezuela as "ridiculous".
But what began as a war of words is escalating into a more serious confrontation.
For example, Mr Chavez has been buying military hardware, including Russian helicopters, 100,000 AK-47 rifles and Brazilian and Spanish equipment he says Venezuela needs to defend itself.
In response the US warned this week that Venezuela's creeping militarisation could destabilise Latin America, setting for the recent election of a string of Left-wing leaders. John Negroponte, the US national intelligence director, also sounded the alarm at Venezuela's forging of "economic, military and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea".
These are both members of what the Bush administration has denounced as "axis of evil" regimes suspected of sponsoring terrorism and with an unhealthy interest in weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Chavez claims Venezuela, along with Brazil and Cuba form an "axis of good", united against President George W Bush, the "world's only terrorist". He has even threatened to stop oil supplies to the US.
"I will sting those who rattle me, so don't mess with me, Condoleezza," he said recently, blowing a mock kiss to the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Such strident defiance of the world superpower, seen by many as a bully which has economically raped and pillaged the region for decades, has made Mr Chavez hugely popular.
In the grimy, litter-strewn capital Caracas his face beams out from posters whipping up national pride and warning the gringos: "Watch out, Latin America is coming."
"The people stand firm with their Commander," one poster reads, with Mr Chavez, known by his supporters as El Commandante, giving a military salute.
"Chavez is the people" reads the slogan under another Che Guevara-like image. Willing "Chavistas" (supporters of the president) are queuing up to enlist in the new reserve force. Many believe their main mission will be more social than military, providing assistance to the poor and first aid in emergencies.
Many work for the state and some have met informally for months, marching without weapons around car parks and sports grounds, their group leaders calling themselves sergeants and colonels and wearing T-shirts saying "Combatant of the Revolution".
During their training over the next five months, they have been told they will be drilled to be "mentally and physically prepared" for all kinds of attack.
In return they will receive a monthly income of about 16,000 Bolivares (£4.30) and in some cases, social benefits including free clothes and shoes.
"Venezuela is changing, Latin America is changing and America does not like it," said Alfredo Carquez, who signed up as a reservist in January.
"We are not aggressive but we have to be ready to defend ourselves. If I have to, I'm ready to use a gun to defend the people."
Another recent recruit who combines his new role with a day job at a state-owned oil firm, said: "Until very recently, the military anywhere in Latin America was associated with oppression, dictatorship and murder.
"But now we are learning that military can be on the side of the people."
But many Venezuelans see Mr Chavez, not the US, as the real threat. They are increasingly afraid the civilian reserves will be used to intimidate and, if necessary, suppress the opposition as he campaigns to win six more years in power later this year.
A message written in the dusty window of a Caracas van sent a silent plea to the US not to invade but to rescue the Venezuelans from their maverick leader.
"We are counting on you, Condoleezza. Intervene, please."