CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accuses Washington of plotting to overthrow him, calls President Bush a "murderer" and is expelling some American missionaries who he insists have links to the CIA.
Venezuelans are sharply divided between those who believe him and those who call it a ploy to distract attention from Venezuela's real problems such as gun violence, inflation, corruption and the homeless who wander Caracas.
"We have to be on alert," said street vendor Carlos Yanave, 44, who fears Bush could send troops to seize Venezuela's oil reserves, the largest outside the Middle East.
"It's a political maneuver," said Jannet Pestana, a 37-year-old lawyer. She said Chavez is trying to "divert attention from the true problems" by taking advantage of Bush's unpopularity.
Chavez says Venezuela has good reason to be concerned given the history of U.S. military actions in places from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"The people of the United States are governed by a murderer ... a crazy man!" Chavez said in a speech Thursday night.
Chavez has sought to make his case citing U.S. documents, online reports and statements from Washington.
"Military plans to attack Venezuela are in full preparation," he told thousands of demonstrators recently at an international summit in Argentina, warning that a U.S. attack would trigger a "100-year war."
Chavez, who is up for re-election next year, has clashed frequently with the United States since he took office in 1999 promising a revolution for the poor.
He says Venezuela must be prepared to defend itself and has called for volunteers to join the army reserve while ordering 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles.
He has seized on intelligence documents released by the United States showing that the CIA knew beforehand that dissident military officers planned a 2002 coup against him. Chavez was briefly ousted but was restored to power by loyalist generals amid a popular uprising.
The Bush administration denies backing any plot against Chavez, though U.S. officials on Thursday accused him of endangering Venezuelan democracy by assuming ever-greater powers. Chavez retorted that the United States is the real threat to democracy.
Chavez's government also has released purported Spanish military documents detailing a 2001 military exercise called "Balboa." The simulation involved an assault on a "brown" country modeled after Venezuela. The documents list warplanes to be used and coordinates of real targets such as airfields and radar installations.
Venezuelan officials have accused the United States of providing confidential information for the simulation conducted by officials of the Spanish military and other NATO countries. Spain's military has not responded to a request for comment.
William Brownfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, insists it was simply a Spanish military exercise — not any real plan and not linked to Washington. Last week Brownfield rattled off a list of other things he said Venezuela has wrongly blamed on America — from alleged assassination plots to floods brought on by global warming.
"Ladies and gentlemen, how can I get any sleep with so many conspiracies and plots?" Brownfield asked reporters.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel later shot back: "People can't sleep when they have problems with their conscience."
Chavez's attacks have extended to Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom he recently called Washington's "puppy" for backing its free-trade plan — a dispute that led both nations to withdraw their ambassadors.
Other accusations have surfaced against the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission, missionaries working with remote Indian tribes. Chavez claims they are being infiltrated by the CIA, and the government has given them three months to leave areas where they work.
The organization based in Sanford, Fla., denies the charges. Spokeswoman Nita Zelenak said the missionaries are preparing to move out, while hoping the government will reconsider.