CARACAS – Venezuela has begun to train popular defense units to help defend the country in the event of war, although not all of the volunteers will receive weapons training.
"Not all of the members of the reserves will be armed," said General Melvin López, secretary of the National Defense Council. "Each person will play their own role: doctors, nurses, journalists. This is a question of knowing who to contact in case of danger, but not everyone would actually carry a rifle."
The aim is to organize the population to respond in the event of "external aggression," and for potential aggressor states to be aware, prior to staging an attack, that "we have trained reserves, ready to fulfill their duty. The idea is to have a dissuasive effect," López added.
Although President Hugo Chávez, who is himself a retired lieutenant-colonel, said the reservists "could eventually number up to two million" in this country of 25 million people, some military experts say this is an overly ambitious goal.
General Raúl Salazar, who served as minister of defense during the president’s first year in office, in 1999, but who is now staunchly anti-Chávez, said that creating "such a huge reserve is simply an impossible mission."
Chávez named former armed forces commander General Julio Quintero to head the gradual preparation of the civilian reserves, which form part of "a new Venezuelan military doctrine," as the president told hundreds of armed forces officers at a military forum on "fourth-generation weapons."
The country’s regular army, navy, air force, and national guard troops total 82,000, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Up to now, reservists have been drawn from the young men and women who have volunteered for military service, which has not been obligatory for the past two decades, although all young men and women must register with the armed forces at the age of 18, which means they can, in theory at least, be called up for service.
In the past 20 years, an average of 20,000 youngsters annually have signed up for 18 months of military service. Most of them come from lower-income sectors, who see the armed forces as an opportunity to learn a trade and earn an income that is equivalent to the national minimum monthly salary (just over $160).
But the Chávez administration and military brass now plan to organize and train a larger corps of volunteer reservists between the ages of 18 and 50.
They are also calling for active cooperation by local businesses, under a bill currently being debated in the legislature, that would create a new law governing the armed forces.
The initiative has elicited concern from Washington, which has a tense relationship with Venezuela’s left-leaning president.
Chávez has accused the U.S. government of supporting the brief April 2002 coup d’etat that removed him from office for two days, and recently stated that he had evidence that the George W. Bush administration planned to assassinate him and trigger chaos in Venezuela, in order to stage an armed invasion of the country.
In the escalating war of words, the U.S. government has questioned Venezuela’s decision to purchase military aircraft from Brazil and Spain, as well as helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles from Russia.
The purchase of the rifles was especially criticized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration spokespersons.
The AK-103 rifles are to replace the Belgian-made light automatic FAL rifles that the Venezuelan armed forces have used for half a century.
The Chávez administration, refuting allegations that it is starting an arms race, says it is merely replacing obsolete equipment.
But a retired navy officer commented to IPS, "The question one could ask is what will they do with the 120,000 or 150,000 FAL rifles that must be in the country. Will they go toward arming the reservists?"
Chávez said he had ordered joint civil-military maneuvers and other activities because "in the context of an asymmetric war, participation by the people is indispensable in defending the country and our national sovereignty."
Asymmetric war is a military term describing warfare in which the two sides are mismatched in their military capabilities.
The president also reiterated his warning that Washington is keen on gaining control over the oil reserves in Venezuela, which supplies around 15 percent of U.S. oil imports.
But the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, William Brownfield, responded in a TV interview, "In the almost 200 years of mutual existence of our two countries the United States has never invaded, is not invading at this moment, and will never invade Venezuela. Period."
Retired army lieutenant Eliécer Otaiza, who heads the government institute charged with carrying out agrarian reform, said on TV, in a personal capacity, that "we must begin to sow hatred of the United States, because if we do go to war it will be to shoot at, not to embrace, each other."
Shortly after Brownfield complained about Otaiza’s statement, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry issued a declaration underlining that it is the only body authorized to express the government’s foreign policy.
Chávez also said that "Otaiza made a mistake," because "we do not promote hatred, but love and solidarity."
The army chief, General Raúl Baduel, a student of The Art of War, the classic work by the famous Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu, and a self-declared follower of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tse, has stated that the military must "learn to interpret the new post-Cold War strategies and threats facing our country."
Among those threats, he included a possible regional confrontation, as an extension of armed conflicts in neighboring countries, "under the pretext of counteracting factors that generate violence" an allusion to the possibility of Colombia’s four-decade civil war spilling over the Venezuelan border.
The army commander also said Venezuela could face the threat of another coup, an invasion "along the lines of the coalitions that have intervened in other parts of the world under the mandate of the OAS [Organization of American States] or the United Nations," or "a fourth-generation war."
In "fourth generation wars," one of the major participants is not a state. These conflicts are characterized by a blurring of the borders between soldier and civilians, or peace and conflict.
Analyst Alberto Garrido explained to IPS the previous three generations of war, as defined since the 17th century. The first involved a strong military hierarchy, and fighting based on battles between troops organized in columns; the second was based on massive fire on enemy targets, including bombing; and the third involved the disintegration of enemy lines, the scattering of armies, and general confusion.
Third generation war is similar to fourth generation warfare, but all of the participants are states.
"Talking about the possibility of an asymmetric war, as Chávez and the military brass have been doing, implies a recognition that the country’s defensive forces will not all depend on the army, because the accepted definitions of fourth-generation and asymmetric war imply non-state opponents fighting a country’s army," said Garrido.
Retired general Alberto Müller, a Chávez supporter, told IPS that the government is "not inventing anything new, because Venezuela’s constitutions have provided for reserves since 1810, and citizen reserves exist in capitalist states, like Switzerland."
But Chávez’s political opponents argue that the new militias will be used for internal control of dissidence and opposition protests.
"With hundreds of thousands of armed militant Chavistas, what kind of democracy and free elections can exist in Venezuela?" remarked Leopoldo Puchi, the head of the Movement to Socialism, a small moderate-left opposition party.
"Creating a parallel armed force is disrespectful of the military charter and is an aberration," complained the Institutional Military Front, a group of retired military officers opposed to Chávez. "Arming thousands and thousands of government supporters prompts us to sound the alert on the risk of a civil war."