Women and jobless armed by Chavez to resist 'US invasion'

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The Independent US

The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is recruiting and training a people's militia to help lead a "war of resistance" against what he claims is the threat of a US invasion. Housewives, students, construction workers and the unemployed are being recruited for the country's Territorial Guard. The first training sessions with firearms have already taken place.

"I can assure you right away that also in this battle we will defeat the US empire," Mr Chavez said in a speech last week. A former army officer who turned to politics after his attempt at a coup in 1992 failed, he has raised the spectre of a US invasion so often that Washington's ambassador, William Brownfield, put it on record last year that "the United States has never invaded ... and will never invade Venezuela".

Though Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the US, relations between the Bush administration and Mr Chavez, a strident critic of Washington-backed free-market policies, remain fraught. As a result, he has become a hero for many left-wing Latin Americans opposed to the US.

They point out that Washington has a long history of supporting rebels seeking to overthrow democratically-elected leftist governments in Latin America. More recently, the Bush administration supported business leaders who forced out Haiti's elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In 2002, senior White House officials held meetings with opponents of Chavez who orchestrated a short-lived coup. Washington quickly welcomed the new government, only for Mr Chavez to overturn the coup within 48 hours. In 2004, it was revealed that the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy had dispensed $1m to groups seeking a national vote of no confidence against Mr Chavez.

Analysts believe the real motivation behind the militia is to protect against a possible uprising by elements of the Venezuelan armed forces - sections of which supported the 2002 coup. "The only conventional army likely to threaten Chavez is Venezuela's own," Sam Logan, a long-term Latin America observer, wrote in a recent analysis for the International Relations and Security Network.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said: "This militia is there to protect the revolution. There is no prospect of the US invading Venezuela, but there is every prospect of it ceaselessly looking for factions within the Venezuelan military and hoping to induce ... elements to rise up."

Mr Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and won a no-confidence referendum in 2004 with three-fifths of the vote, is loathed by Venezuela's wealthy éliteas much as he is loved by the poor. He has spent millions of dollars from oil revenues on free health care and education in the barrios. His presidency has seen improvements in health indicators and in literacy.

Against this are signs of increasing authoritarianism. Human Rights Watch has accused Mr Chavez of undermining judicial independence by packing the Supreme Court with his supporters, and of stifling the rights of the media to criticise his administration.