Venezuelan ex-general who denounced Cuban influence in military faces investigation

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A former Venezuelan army general who has denounced growing involvement by Cuban troops in President Hugo Chavez's military appeared before prosecutors Wednesday to respond to charges of insulting the armed forces and revealing military secrets.

Retired Brig. Gen. Antonio Rivero was once the government's emergency management director, but he grew concerned about what he saw as growing Cuban influence in the military and retired early in protest over that and other issues.

He now faces accusations that carry a possible penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Rivero said after the arraignment hearing before military prosecutors that he was barred from discussing details of the case while the investigation proceeds. He has not yet been formally charged.

In a telephone interview Tuesday night before the hearing, he said: "I'm totally innocent. ... I'm going to face it because I'm convinced that I haven't committed any crime, and I'm doing it simply for the good of my country."

Rivero has become a political opponent of Chavez since leaving the military and is running for a National Assembly seat in September elections. Some government opponents call the case against him one more attempt to silence a government critic through the courts.

Rivero has denounced what he calls a "passive invasion" by Cuban soldiers, saying their influence goes far beyond what should be permitted. He has said Cuban officers participated in high-level military meetings, trained snipers, gained detailed knowledge of communications and advised the military on underground bunkers built to store and conceal weapons.

Rivero has expressed concern the Cuban advisers now know where the Venezuelan military stores weapons and where its command offices are. He also has said the Cubans have been helping with a digital radio communications system for security forces, meaning they have sensitive information on antenna locations and radio frequencies — knowledge that could be used to help secure the status quo in Venezuela in the future.

Among other issues that bother the 49-year-old career soldier is what he calls the "politicization" of the military, including the slogan that soldiers now repeat when saluting: "Socialist homeland or death!" Rivero also condemns Chavez's enlistment of supporters in a growing civilian militia and says it's improper for the president, a civilian, to wear a military uniform as he often does.

Rivero's lawyer, Guillermo Heredia, said his client hasn't insulted the military or revealed anything that isn't already public knowledge.

"Soldiers who retire have the right to give their opinions about things in the country, and to denounce things they consider abnormal," Heredia told reporters after the closed hearing.

Military prosecutors did not immediately comment on the case.

Chavez, who views Fidel Castro as a "father" and mentor, has acknowledged that Cuban troops are teaching his soldiers how to repair radios in tanks and to store ammunition, among other tasks. He has declined to elaborate on the military assistance, saying everything his close ally does helps strengthen Venezuela.

Cuban officials have dismissed claims of undue influence in Venezuela, saying the vast majority of Cubans working in the country are assigned to medical, education, sports and cultural programs. Other Cubans have been working on software for Venezuela's passport and identification-card systems.

Venezuela, in turn, is Cuba's largest trading partner and provides more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for social services such as the Cuban doctors who see patients in free neighborhood clinics.