Venezuela's Chavez defends general amid scandal

President Hugo Chavez praised a top military aide Sunday for pledging not to cooperate with Venezuela's opposition should one of its leaders win the country's next presidential vote, further angering critics who argue the general demonstrated disrespect for democracy.

In a newspaper column, Chavez referred to Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as "a revolutionary soldier," and said that he planned to promote him to general in chief of defense for "his merits and virtues."

The self-proclaimed socialist leader harshly criticized Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, for calling Rangel Silva's remarks "unacceptable," and accused the OAS chief of irresponsibly meddling in Venezuela's domestic affairs.

"His unfortunate statements are nothing more than disrespect for our sovereignty," Chavez wrote.

In a recent interview, the Ultimas Noticias daily newspaper quoted Rangel Silva as saying that the military would not accept an opposition victory in Venezuela's 2012 presidential election. The general also told the newspaper that military officers support Chavez's drive toward socialism.

Rangel Silva's comments have raised the ire of opposition politicians, who have long accused Chavez of imbuing soldiers with his socialist ideology in violation of constitutional norms establishing the apolitical nature of Venezuela's military.

Government adversaries argue Chavez is dangerously dividing Venezuela's military by demanding that military personnel embrace his socialist policies, noting that the former paratroop commander has forced soldiers to salute their superiors by shouting: "Socialist homeland or death! We will be victorious!"

Critics fear Rangel Silva and other top-ranking military officers could reject an opposition triumph at the polls in 2012 and keep Chavez in office, effectively turning one of South America's oldest democracies into a dictatorship.

During his Sunday television and radio program, "Hello President," Chavez said that he planned to promote the general on Tuesday.

"I will have the honor and pleasure of promoting ... Gen. Rangel Silva while the anti-patriotic opposition lashes out at patriotic generals like him," he said. "What they attempt to do is create divisions within the armed forces."

Chavez denies that he plans to retain power by force. He promises to handily defeat any opposition candidate by winning more votes.

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition-friendly newspaper Tal Cual, alleged that Chavez is attempting to prepare the military to ignore an election defeat.

Petkoff — one of the president's most outspoken critics — predicted that Chavez would lose the next election and warned that violent upheaval could occur if the military were to ignore the result.

"It's a brainwashing venture, making officials get accustomed to think their job is not to recognize the election results," Petkoff said Sunday during a program broadcast on the opposition-leaning Globovision television channel. "When the president of the republic is defeated, the armed forces will have to decide if it's convenient to prop up the head of state amid an ocean of blood."

Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties has agreed to field a single candidate in 2012, but the organization has not yet decided when or how to choose the contender. Some opposition leaders have suggested that primaries should be held to choose a candidate capable of ousting Chavez.