Army officer reveals secret plans to assassinate Venezuelan President

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The Independent US

A self-confessed member of a group of disaffected Venezuelan military officers has admitted that they considered a conspiracy to assassinate President Hugo Chavez.

A self-confessed member of a group of disaffected Venezuelan military officers has admitted that they considered a conspiracy to assassinate President Hugo Chavez.

The revelation is the latest, and so far the gravest, sign that serious instability could be just around the corner for one of the world's major oil powers.

It came from Luis Garcia Morales, a captain in Venezuela's National Guard, who was arrested and dismissed after an interview earlier this month with a television station in which he announced the formation of a group called the Venezuelan Patriotic Junta, and demanded that Mr Chavez resign.

In an interview with The Independent, Capt Morales now revealed that the group, whose other members have apparently not been detected, considered a coup with the sole objective of ousting Mr Chavez from the presidency.

"A comrade of ours, a sniper, said it would be easy to shoot him, and that would be the end of the problem," CaptMorales said. The junta debated the question, and decided that they would simply be creating a martyr and "chaos worse than that we are already experiencing".

Venezuela goes to the polls this Sunday in an election which the government intends will endorse the Chavez "revolution". After winning a landslide victory in December 1998, the President has overhauled the constitution and virtually obliterated, at national level, the traditional parties whose corruption and cronyism he blames for Venezuela's long-term economic decline.

But the country is deeply divided. Unemployment and crime have risen sharply, and the economy shrank last year by 7.2 per cent. Middle-class Venezuelans are leaving in droves and there is evidence of widespread discontent in thearmed forces.

"Chavez has sown the wind, and now he is reaping the whirlwind," declared the retired army general and former defence minister Fernando Ochoa Antich, one of a group of retired officers, from all branches of the armed forces, who claim to speak on behalf of active-service personnel opposed to Mr Chavez's policies. In particular, they resent his attempts to enlist the armed forces in the service of the revolution.

Venezuela's new constitution replaces the old description of the military as "apolitical, non-deliberative and obedient" with a more ambiguous wording which calls on them to refrain from "acts of propaganda... or political proselytising". It also assigns them "active participation in national development".

One of Mr Chavez's first acts as President was to bring the armed forces out of the barracks and put them to work in poor areas, repainting schools, cleaning drains and running "popular markets". This so-called "Plan Bolivar 2000" (named after the independence hero Simon Bolivar) has been popular among the poor, but has created deep resentment among many officers, who see it as demeaning.

"Members of the armed forces are generally conservative," General Ochoa said. "They take a great pride in their profession, and when they are obliged to do work like this they don't feel it is being respected."

The President, along with the Defence Minister, General Ismael Eliecer Hurtado, insists that the military are "more united than ever". But in what could come to be considered an error of judgement, Mr Chavez recently gave officers an apparent carte blanche to speak out in public. "Active-service military personnel can go to the news media," the President said, "and speak about any irregularity of which they have knowledge."

Within weeks, Capt Morales asked to be interviewed on the television station Globovision. It was during this interview that the captain - making use of his right to speak out, he said - revealed the formation of the Venezuelan Patriotic Junta.

News of the content of the videotaped interview (which the station never aired, but sent to the Defence Minister) leaked out. Shortly afterwards a senior air-force officer, Colonel Silvino Bustillos, went public with his own complaints of corruption in the armed forces. He later claimed on television that Mr Chavez was making unconstitutional use of the national flag and other symbols in his election campaign, and called for his removal as commander-in-chief. At the weekend, Col Bustillos was also expelled from the military. He says he has no connection with the Patriotic Junta.

The disciplinary measures taken against Mr Chavez's opponents contrast with promotions handed out to those expressing support for the revolution - evidence, say critics, that the President is turning the armed forces into a political party.

Opinion polls suggest that Mr Chavez will easily win re-election to the presidency, along with a majority in the new, single-chamber legislature. His main opponent is trailing by at least 11 points in opinion polls.

But some ask how the military can guarantee (as is their duty) respect for the election when the opposition is branded "counter-revolutionary".

"I don't discount the possibility that there could be a violent outcome," said General Ochoa. "I am among those who feel the possibility is high."