Thousands of armed Venezuelans are preparing to ensure that President Hugo Chavez is re-elected on Sunday and will “shed their blood” for the cause if necessary.
Paranoid about the prospect of a coup or losing the presidential election fair and square, the firebrand leader of anti-American sentiment in Latin America has spent his eight years in office filling government jobs with acting and retired army officers.
With Mr Chavez hoping to win another six years in power, the opposition fears that even if it wins at the ballot box it will never be able to take power.
After purging the armed forces of elements opposed to his populist Left-wing rule, Mr Chavez has ensured that a new reserve force is outside the normal military command chain, answering only to him.
The former paratrooper colonel, who led a failed coup in 1992, has military men in most ministries, in politics, and even on the Supreme Court.
advertisement”What we have now is a form of Praetorian government,” said Domingo Irwin, a defence analyst at the Pedagogical University in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
One proud member of Venezuela’s new military reserve is Edgar Fajardo. He does not know much about handling guns, but he does know who he will vote for in the election: Hugo Chavez.
“I was unemployed until ‘El Comandante’ [Mr Chavez] gave me this chance to serve my country,” said Mr Fajardo 54, who irons his uniform every morning before acting as a sentry at government installations in the capital’s poor neighbourhood of Catia.
He said: “Now I am ready to shed my blood for him and the Bolivarian Revolution.”
That socio-economic “revolution”, as Mr Chavez likes to call it, is inspired by his hero Simón Bolívar, the 19th century Venezuelan and Latin American revolutionary leader. For it to continue, Mr Chavez, 52, will have to defeat the veteran politician Manuel Rosales to secure another term.
Soldiers taking part in the parade. Chavez has appointed military men to many key governmental positions
By distributing his oil-rich country’s wealth, Mr Chavez has made many friends who should help him to achieve his goal. He has doubled the number of state sector jobs to more than two million in a population of 26 million.
The United States and alarmed neighbours have accused Mr Chavez of using his oil windfall to spark an arms race in the region.
He has acquired 100,000 Russian Kalashnikov rifles, SU30 fighter jets and more than 50 helicopters.
But it is more about political control than national defence.
For Alberto Garrido, a leading political analyst in Caracas, the president is building up and arming his support base, should he lose elections or be removed from power by other means.
“He believes in the revolutionary principle of a people in arms, and he believes that he can never be beaten should his people be armed,” said Mr Garrido.