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Thousands Protest Colombian Paramilitary Presence in Venezuela
Published on Monday, May 17, 2004 by the Agence France Presse
Thousands Protest Colombian Paramilitary Presence in Venezuela
Chavez to Set up 'People's Militia'
 

President Hugo Chavez announced his government would establish "people's militias" to counter what he called foreign interference after an alleged coup plot by Colombian paramilitaries Caracas claims was financed by Washington.

Chavez also said he would boost the strength of Venezuela's armed forces as part of a new "anti-imperialist" phase for his government.

"Each and every Venezuelan man and woman must consider themselves a soldier," said Chavez.

"Let the organization of a popular and military orientation begin from today."


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses supporters during a mass rally in Caracas on Sunday, May 16, 2004. Chavez announced his government would establish 'people's militias' to counter what he called foreign interference after an alleged coup plot by Colombian paramilitaries Caracas claims was financed by Washington
Credit: Venpres
The president's announcement came a week after authorities arrested 88 people described as Colombian paramilitaries holed up on property belonging to a key opposition figure.

Earlier, thousands of Chavez supporters draped in national colors marched through the streets of Caracas to protest the alleged coup plot.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel claimed the United States and Colombians were involved in the conspiracy.

"This march is in response to the conspiracy mounted by the Colombian oligarchy and the North American empire, but we will defeat them," Rangel said.

Rangel said the number of paramilitaries and people arrested linked to the plot uncovered last week had now risen to 120, out of 130 believed to be implicated.

Of those detained, 102 are in prison, and nine are due to go Monday before a judge.

Eight active-duty Venezuelan military officers allegedly linked to the plot have also been arrested.

Since the original news of the arrests a week ago, Chavez has extended the scope of his criticism, initially blaming the plot on Miami-based opponents of Cuban President Fidel Castro -- as well as the paramilitaries -- and later accusing the United States of financing it.

National Assembly Deputy Dario Vivas said pro-Chavez lobbyists had launched an international campaign "to denounce the presence of foreign agents to get Chavez out of power."

The White House has called Chavez's accusations "irresponsible."

Chavez denied he was starting an arms race, but said he wanted to avoid fresh conspiracies. He said the nation's 100,000 reservists were not enough to counter a plot, and announced he had recalled retired military officers to duty.

"If it was necessary to acquire new war material for our soldiers to be better equipped, we will do so as necessary, on land, sea and in the air," he said.

Chavez opponents call the plot theory a "media show" by the government designed to distract Venezuelans just as petitioners seeking a recall referendum against Chavez launched a campaign to ensure the signatures they collected are validated by next week.

The opposition in March gathered 3.4 million signatures, but the electoral commission has only validated 1.9 million of them, leaving opponents short of the 2.43 million needed for a recall election. Opposition leaders said they are mobilizing volunteers to validate the remaining 600,000 signatures.

© Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse

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