Chavez dismisses 'Cubanization' accusations

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez dismissed a retired general's warnings about a growing Cuban presence in Venezuela's military, accusing the officer Sunday of helping opponents portray his government a pawn of Fidel Castro.

Former Brig. Gen. Antonio Rivero has denounced a widespread involvement of Cuban troops in the military.

Chavez made no denials on that point, saying that Cubans are merely aiding soldiers in a limited capacity, and he defended his government's increasingly close cooperation with communist-led Cuba.

"What Cubanization? The Cubans are helping us here," Chavez said during his television and radio program, "Hello President."

"They're telling us how to store compasses, how to repair radios inside tanks and how to stockpile ammunition," Chavez said of the Cubans' activities.

Chavez said he suspected Rivero was making inroads with opposition groups long before he retired, saying the former officer speaks with "the same voice of the enemy."

"He was already among bad company," Chavez said.

Opposition leaders and other critics have long accused Chavez of allowing Cuban advisers and operatives to hold key positions in the military and state institutions, but have failed to produce concrete evidence of their allegations.

Rivero's detailed descriptions of Cuban involvement and his high standing in military circles have added new credibility to the concerns.

Rivero has said he retired from the army this month after 25 years of service, mainly because of "the presence and meddling of Cuban soldiers" in the armed forces. The former Chavez ally said he witnessed Cubans training Venezuelan troops during his last assignment as an infantry commander.

In televised remarks Thursday, he said Cubans currently train Venezuelan troops, including courses for snipers, and are also playing a role in intelligence, weapons, communications and other strategic areas.

He also has denounced the politicization of the military, including the slogan that soldiers now repeat when saluting: "Socialist homeland or death!" He has condemned Chavez's enlistment of supporters in a growing civilian militia.

Rivero told the Globovision television channel Sunday that intelligence agents have been spying on him since he denounced the Cuban presence in the military, taking photographs of his home and questioning his neighbors. He called the actions "part of the consequences" of criticizing the government and expressed concern for the safety of his family.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander, has made Cuba his closest ally since he took office in 1999. The president frequently visits Fidel Castro, calling him a mentor, but he rejects allegations that Cuba's communist leaders hold sway over his plans to transform Venezuela into a socialist state.

Venezuela has become a key economic benefactor to Cuba, sending the island oil on preferential terms in exchange for the services of thousands of Cuban doctors, whose work in free clinics has helped boost Chavez's political support among the poor.

Chavez turned to Cuba this year for help in tackling Venezuela's energy crisis. His allies in Havana responded by dispatching Cuban Vice President Ramiro Valdes to lead a team responsible for revamping the South American country's electricity grid.

During Sunday's program, Chavez also announced a 40 percent pay raise for soldiers of every rank — a move that could bolster loyalty to "El Comandante" within the military ahead of congressional elections in September while the country struggles with 26 percent inflation.

"Boys, we're going to increase salaries by 40 percent for all the ranks," he said.