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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March 2004, 14:03 GMT
Venezuela: Chavez's key backers
Supporters of Hugo Chavez
President Chavez's supporters show off their muscle
President Hugo Chavez relies on a group of staunch supporters outside the Cabinet to defend his government.

They hold key positions within the armed forces, the ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), community organisations and local government.

Some of these figures are linked to the so-called Bolivarian Circles, described by the government as civil action groups giving a voice to the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society.

They range from neighbourhood groups working together to fill potholes to cyber-circles dedicated to publishing first-hand news accounts on the internet.

But critics argue that what they call the "Circles of Terror" have become an underground armed militia.

Named after the national hero, Simon Bolivar, about 70,000 of these community groups - which lobby the government directly for funds - have been set up throughout the country to fight for the rights of the marginalised and "defend the revolution".

'Commander' Lina Ron::Street activist

The spread of the "Circles" has led to the emergence of a number of popular leaders.

Among them is Lina Ron of the People's Power Network, who has taken to the streets to defend the Chavez regime.

Ms Ron, whose supporters call her "Commander", is renowned for having set fire to the US flag in Bolivar Square in Caracas just days after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

When she was briefly detained in November 2002 for confronting an anti-Chavez student demonstration, the president defended Ms Ron as "a soldier who deserves the respect of all Venezuelans".

However, when the opposition first marched to the National Electoral Council to hand in a petition calling for a referendum on the president's rule, she was blamed by the government for instigating violent protests by government supporters.

The president himself later admitted she had become "uncontrollable".

This February, Ms Ron launched the Venezuelan People's Unity party which, she said, is made up of "radicals, hardliners and men and women of violence".

The new party has a role to play in defence of the government, Ms Ron says, following a drive by the opposition to gather the signatures of 20% of the electorate to trigger a recall referendum on the president's rule.

"What is coming is not an electoral contest. What is coming is an electoral battle," the dyed-in-the-wool Chavez supporter said.

"If someone tells me that the signatures are valid and that Chavez is going to be recalled from power, we will be unable to accept that.

"Whatever the result there's going to be conflict here," Ms Ron said at the meeting held to celebrate the party's creation.

Gen Raul Baduel::Army Commander-in-Chief

Gen Raul Baduel was one of the officers who rose up against the short-lived Carmona government during the April 2002 coup d'etat, when he was chief of the 42nd Airborne Brigade of paratroopers.

President Chavez with defence minister General Jorge Garcia Carneiro (l) and General Raul Baduel (r) in January 2004
President Chavez confers with army chief Raul Baduel (r) and his defence minister
Known for his new-age beliefs, Gen Baduel was the first senior officer to declare his opposition to the coup.

He helped organise the operation that rescued Mr Chavez from prison on the Caribbean island of La Orchila.

He was subsequently promoted to commander of the Maracay Garrison, before rising to commander-in-chief of the army in January 2004.

President Chavez's military-civilian policy is a central tenet of the Bolivarian revolution, and began with Plan Bolivar 2000, a controversial internal defence and development exercise.

The general has rejected allegations of a rift within the army, saying that the group of dissident officers who declared themselves in legitimate disobedience in October 2002 "have strayed from the path of duty and turned their backs on the Venezuelan state because of a thirst for power and personal gain".

But critics say Gen Baduel is one of a small group of officers "co-governing" Venezuela with Mr Chavez.

Freddy Bernal, Mayor Libertador municipality

Freddy Bernal is the president's most trusted mayor in Caracas.

The opposition regard him as ultra-revolutionary.

He was a target of the police raids carried out on 12 April 2002, under the short-lived Carmona government.

The mayor played a key role in organising a rally on 28 February this year to protest against what he called US interference in internal affairs.

He said the march was a way of asking the Bush administration to show Venezuela some respect and refrain from commenting on the country's internal affairs.

Mr Bernal was also a vocal supporter of the militarisation of Caracas in November 2002, when the national guard began to patrol the streets of the capital following widespread violence.

Before taking up politics, the mayor commanded a notorious metropolitan police elite corps known as the Z Group.

The opposition now accuse him of both arming and training the "Bolivarian Circles", an allegation he denies.

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