Chavez decree strengthens pro-government militias

AP News
Posted: Mar 22, 2011 10:34 PM
Chavez decree strengthens pro-government militias

New rules authorizing Venezuela's military to distribute weapons to pro-government militias took effect Tuesday, raising concern among critics who say the armed groups could be used by President Hugo Chavez to cement his hold on power.

Rocio San Miguel, an anti-Chavez activist who heads Citizen Control for Security, a non-governmental group that studies military-related issues, said the decree could allow Chavez to turn the militias into "the armed branch of the revolution."

Militiamen had previously been trained to use firearms, but were not issued weapons. They used firearms only in training exercises and military parades under the strict supervision of military officers.

Venezuela's state-run news agency said the new system is aimed at "achieving the greatest political and revolutionary quality in the construction of socialism" within the Bolivarian Militia.

The militia groups consist of roughly 120,000 volunteers united by their militant support for Chavez and their willingness to defend his government.

San Miguel said the changes also could create tensions between militiamen and military officers, noting the decree creates "complicated measures for discipline, obedience and subordination." She said that probably will "deepen the sense of unease within the armed forces," which also have about 120,000 personnel.

Government officials did not comment Tuesday on the decree.

Chavez has warned repeatedly of potential threats to government, including what he alleges are conspiracies in the United States and within the Venezuelan "oligarchy" _ his term for his political opponents.

U.S. officials and leaders of Venezuela's opposition deny they hope to unseat Chavez through undemocratic means.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander who once led a failed coup before being elected president in 1998, has urged members of the militia to be ready to risk their lives to defend his government.

Government adversaries have raised concerns in the past that militiamen could be used to quash anti-Chavez street protests or put down political upheaval.

In December, a lame-duck congress dominated by Chavez's allies swiftly granted the president special legislative powers for 18 months, prompting an outcry from opposition politicians who were elected to the National Assembly three months earlier.