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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Chavez accused of fostering militia links
Two months after April's short-lived coup against Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez, the country is still grappling with political uncertainty.
Reports of divisions within the armed forces have kept the country on edge, and recently, the government dismissed rumours of another impending coup attempt.
In the spotlight are pro-Chavez organisations - Bolivarian Circles - which the president's critics describe as embryonic militias. A number of their followers are also accused of firing on April's anti-government demonstration.
The groups were formed about a year ago. In a bid to boost people power in Venezuela, President Chavez asked his supporters to form civic action groups so that communities would have more clout in lobbying central government directly for funds.
He wanted to reduce the power of the old government bureaucracy by creating tens-of-thousands of fiercely loyal and well organised groups.
Official estimates say well over a million Venezuelans have become members of the circles. Press reports, however, put the figure at above 700,000.
They want the Bolivarian Circles - named after the 19th Century Venezuelan freedom fighter and folk hero Simon Bolivar - to be dissolved.
Venezuela's fragmented opposition alleges Mr Chavez and his officials have distributed hundreds of army issue weapons among the Bolivarian Circles in a bid to turn them into a formidable fighting force to rival the government's armed forces.
Firing into the crowd
In the event, Bolivarian Circles drummed up popular support on the streets for President Chavez as he was being detained in April's attempted coup.
Evidence to support the theory of armed Circles has come mainly from video footage shot on 11 April showing a handful of Chavistas who are the President's die-hard supporters firing into a crowd of anti-government protesters.
Confidential documents obtained by the BBC show that high ranking civil servants and military intelligence officials are aware of the variety and quantity of weapons at the disposal of several unidentified Bolivarian Circles.
"These papers show there are Bolivarian Circles which have arms caches containing hundreds of 9mm pistols and AK-47 assault rifles," retired Vice Admiral JosÚ Rafael Huizi-Clavier of the Institutional Military Front said.
"I've heard the government has secretly imported these weapons from abroad, for example from Cuba. It's just a matter of time before the armed forces testify publicly to the extent of the problem."
Fingers have been pointed at Cuba by the Vice Admiral and his colleagues from the Institutional Military Front for providing military training to Bolivarian Circle members.
There are also widespread concerns among opposition leaders that the Circles were set up for neighbours to spy on neighbours and report any anti-government activity to the authorities.
"There is no room for criticism within the Bolivarian Circles and members have all been told to obey the president without questioning him. They are undemocratic organisations," says Ernesto Alvarenga who is a member of the opposition Solidarity Faction in parliament.
Mr Alvarenga was one of the founders of the Bolivarian Circle movement and an ally of the president.
However, he told the BBC he became disillusioned with the way the Circles are becoming more and more militant, not the community working parties he had in mind.
He has called for the Circles to be disbanded. However, he says first the government must freeze its annual funds of around $14bn. "I have received numerous death threats to try to stop me from speaking out against the Circles.
"Only last week there was a bomb waiting for me in my Caracas office. Thank God it didn't explode," he says.
Days later another bomb was planted in his office - this time, however, it did explode. Luckily, no one was hurt.
The government has repeatedly denied the existence of armed Bolivarian Circles. Supporters of Mr Chavez say the allegations are absurd.
"If indeed Bolivarian Circles did have arms, which I doubt, it would be highly illegal and unconstitutional," says Freddy Bernal, the mayor of Caracas.
"The middle and upper classes in Venezuela have a vested interest in keeping the masses down who're only now really beginning to organise themselves. That's why they've launched a campaign to discredit the Circles."
One of the most fervent leaders and architects of the Bolivarian Circles movement is Lina Ron.
Despite the fact that she was imprisoned for several months after a protest march earlier this year, she is convinced the "Bolivarian Revolution", as she puts it, must be defended at all costs.
"We have every right to defend President Chavez in the event of a coup. I'm prepared to die for him," she told the BBC.
"We're now in a stage just before a civil war. But we also need to remind ourselves that the Circles were founded first and foremost as social projects for the poorest neighbourhoods of Venezuela.
"We are a threat because for the first time in world history the masses are coming together in a truly democratic organisation."
In a recent television address to the Venezuelan people, Mr Chavez promised that his vision of the Bolivarian Circles would be exported abroad to other countries in the Americas and Europe, including the United States, Argentina and Spain.
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