On Scene: Venezuela's War Games

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Every year, fishermen in this coastal state of Vargas carry statues of the Virgin of the Valley in a traditional procession meant to bring peace and health. But now, they're using the "patron saint of the fishermen" to help prepare for something far from peaceful — a guerilla war against a U.S. invasion that President Hugo Chavez insists Washington is actively plotting. To prepare for a gringo attack, the Armed Forces and members of coastal communities recently stuffed three statues of virgins normally reserved for Catholic holidays with rifles and mortars to be used in a simulated ambush. The activity was part of a series of war games carried out here with over 3,000 troops and civilians.

The very notion of the U.S. invading Venezuela strikes many observers in both countries as far beyond the realm of possibility, and critics say it is more of a tool for Chavez to rally support behind his government than anything else. But in a country where many still blame the U.S. for tacitly supporting a failed coup against Chavez in 2002, the powers that be certainly don't act as if an attack is a joke.

Government officials say they need to guard against the Americans because Washington is after their vast oil reserves, the largest in the hemisphere, as global energy supplies dwindle and prices rise. "The imperialist hegemony has kept its eyes on our natural resources," said Jose Franco, naval police commander and head of the military exercises.

In preparation for such an attack, Chavez announced a plan last year to boost Venezuela's civilian reserves count from 50,000 to 2 million men and women, almost 10% of the population. Military officials say they must train ordinary citizens to employ tactics like those used against Americans in the Iraqi insurgency and the Vietnam war because the Armed Forces cannot match the U.S. military might on their own.

Though an actual guerilla war may be far off, the war of words between the U.S. and Venezuela is certainly raging. The U.S. ambassador has been pelted with produce and chased away during charity events, while Chavez has called President Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." For its part, Washington has accused Chavez of fronting an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Earlier this month, Chavez received his first shipment of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles from Russia; he also purchased a license to produce Kalashnikovs in Venezuela. In the wake of the recently passed U.S. arms ban against his country, Chavez is looking to acquire Russian helicopters and fighter aircraft — and is set to visit Moscow in late July to discuss arms deals, among other matters. Late last week, after Chavez announced a deal to buy 24 Russian fighter jets, a U.S. State Department spokesman said Venezuela appeared to be in the midst of an "outsized military buildup for a country of that size and the nature of the threats" in the region. Venezuelan officials say the purchases are not part of any real arms buildup, but simply a necessary move to replace aging, outdated military equipment.

Should an enemy invade, arms could wind up in the hands of civilians like Marta Berroteran, a 64-year old housewife, who sits on a nine-member "community defense council." Standing on the beach holding a white peace flag while waiting for the virgins to arrive by sea, she says she is in charge of preparing food, water and refuge in the case of an invasion.

On this day Margarita Romero, an artisan who dresses statues of virgins for a Catholic procession held every September, is in charge of getting the statues to Berroteran and her neighbors in charge of defending the community. As she led the ammunition-filled icons to small motorboats, she recited "Hail Mary" prayers out loud. "We don't want war, but we know we need to be prepared," Romero said.

After a half an hour delay reported by journalists on the boats, the virgins were eventually transported to the beach, where community members planned to carry them clandestinely to Venezuelan troops dressed as civilians so they could fight enemy troops invading their communities. Meanwhile, civilian reservists exploded fake land mines aimed at enemy tanks speeding down a coastal highway. Soldiers representing the invaders sat perched atop the tanks and sprayed blanks from their machine guns towards bystanders on a nearby boardwalk.

Despite the war games, some analysts say Chavez will ultimately not jeopardize his relationship with the United States, his nation's largest oil customer and financial market. Venezuelan military analyst and columnist Alberto Garrido says military conflict between the two countries is still a "hypothesis." But even he acknowledges that, given how high the stakes are in the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship, anything is possible. As he puts it, "One never knows what can happen when there are two conflicting positions up against each other with oil in the middle."