CHARALLAVE, Venezuela – CHARALLAVE, Venezuela (AP) — A 54-year-old housewife fires the machine gun for the first time, lets loose a thunderous burst of gunfire and beams with satisfaction. A boot camp instructor shouts, "Kill those gringos!"
Thousands of civilian volunteers in olive-green fatigues are training over the weekend at a Venezuelan army base, where they learn to crawl under barbed wire, fire assault rifles and stalk enemies in combat. Known as the Bolivarian Militia, this spirited group of mostly working-class men and women — from students to retirees — are united by their militant support for President Hugo Chavez and their willingness to defend his government.
From what exactly?
Chavez has repeatedly warned of potential threats: the United States, U.S.-allied Colombia and the Venezuelan "oligarchy," as he labels opponents. He has called on recruits to be ready to lay down their lives if necessary to battle "any threat, foreign or domestic," even though Venezuela has never fought a war against another nation.
In the meantime, the militia is a practical tool for Chavez to engage his supporters, rally nationalist fervor and intimidate any opponents who might consider another coup like the one he survived in 2002. One close aide, Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello, said there are already 120,000 in the militia and that it could grow to 200,000.
Chavez opponents call those figures grossly exaggerated, but they're still alarmed that government loyalists are being armed across the country. They also condemn the more than $4 billion that Chavez has spent on Russian weapons, including guns, helicopters and Sukhoi fighter jets which now sometimes thunder over Caracas.
The militia "is a personal army, a Praetorian Guard," said retired Rear Adm. Elias Buchszer, a Chavez opponent. He said despite Chavez's talk about repelling a U.S. invasion, the militia is really aimed at maintaining control, keeping him in power, and "making the country fear that if anything is done the militiamen are going to come out."
Members of the volunteer force range from the unemployed to electricians, bankers and social workers. Most of those interviewed during the training in April said they either benefit from free state education programs or work as public employees. They aren't paid to attend events but receive about $7 to offset transportation costs.
As part of the training, they line up at a firing range aiming decades-old, Belgian-made FAL rifles at red bull's-eyes on paper targets 80 yards (75 meters) away. They practice reacting to an ambush in the forest, camouflaged with mud-smeared faces and with dry grass stuck in the collars of their uniforms.
They crouch for cover behind a pig pen and fire blanks into an abandoned building in a mock raid on hostage-takers. Spent shells clink onto the concrete as shots echo through the building, and one man shouts "all clear!"
Their instructors, including both experienced militia troops and army officers, say one objective is to ready them for a war of resistance against an occupying force. They allude to insurgents battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the militia's guiding principles is constantly drilled into the group as they salute in unison shouting: "Socialist homeland or death! We will be victorious!"
As troops gather for one drill, a fake grenade goes off and everyone dives to the ground. One woman is led away crying from the shock, and is given oxygen by nurses to calm her.
Most seem gung-ho for marching in the sun and getting their uniforms sweaty and dirty. Some cover their faces with black dust from the charred earth left by forest fires. They also enjoy the camaraderie, saying they spent one night hiking and watching a Chinese film.
Several volunteer to shoot mortars and a 106-mm anti-tank cannon.
The cannon shell is loaded, and the air shakes with the deafening blast. Troops wince, then erupt into cheers as they are covered in smoke, pumping their fists and shouting: "Viva Chavez!"
Osmaira Pachecho, the housewife who fired the machine gun, said with a giddy laugh that it was "marvelous" fun taking aim at the straw dummy dressed up in a military uniform. Growing serious, she said she doesn't like to imagine killing anyone, especially not fellow Venezuelans.
"But if they attack us from some other place, I think we're prepared for it," said Pachecho, who is studying to be a teacher in a free government program and fervently admires Chavez. "We're prepared to support the armed forces if they need us."
Chavez addressed an estimated 35,000 militia members at an outdoor rally on April 13, the eighth anniversary of his return to power after the failed 2002 coup. Wearing the red beret of his army years, Chavez unsheathed a sword that once belonged to the 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar — the inspiration for his Bolivarian Revolution movement — and held it up as he swore in militia troops.
"You should be ready to take up the arms you have there at any time and go out to give your lives, if you have to, for the Bolivarian Revolution!" Chavez bellowed. He said without giving details that he is sure some opponents hope to assassinate him.
"If they were to do it ... there are my militias, there are my people. You know what you would have to do: Simply take all power in Venezuela, absolutely all! Sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces. Deepen the revolution!" he told the crowd.
Chavez, who is up for re-election in 2012, has recently seen his popularity slip below 50 percent in polls as his government struggles with electricity shortages, a recession and 26 percent inflation.
Some who belong to the militia say Venezuelans have nothing to fear, that their only purpose is to protect the country and that their guns are locked away in military depots when not in use. They also carry out missions including standing guard at state-run markets, and say they would be prepared to respond in earthquakes or other disasters.
Others are trained in how to safeguard Venezuela's oil industry and keep fuel flowing in the event of a conflict.
Perhaps most important for some, they feel empowered because Chavez has included them in this effort.
"We aren't here because anyone forced us to be. We're here because we're patriots," said Maria Henriquez, an unemployed 44-year-old who emerged covered with dust after crawling through a trench under barbed wire. As for Chavez, she said, "We'd give our lives for him."