CARACAS (Reuters) – A respected Venezuela general who retired this month said the presence of Cuban soldiers in the army’s highest decision-making levels was a security threat, backing opposition criticism of President Hugo Chavez.
Cuban doctors, teachers and sports instructors have flooded into Venezuela since Chavez took office 11 years ago, bringing healthcare to poor neighbourhoods but angering critics who say the nation is becoming a copy of the communist island.
In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday, General Antonio Rivero said Chavez was remodelling the army along Cuban lines. He said Cuban military advisers had a free run of the country since 2007 and had access to privileged information.
“Cuban soldiers have been inducing the current transformation of the armed forces,” said Rivero, who is considering running for office in September legislative elections.
Rivero’s criticism of the Chavez government, where he served as head of the emergency services until 2008, marks the second high-profile departure of a former ally of the leftist president in the last few months.
“We are putting in the hands of an ally information that no country should know,” said the burly Rivero, who retired after nearly 25 years in the armed forces because of his concerns.
“In the case of an armed conflict we don’t know which side Cuba will be on.”
He said Cubans were present in Venezuela’s Strategic Operational Command, the top planning body in the military, and that while the foreigners did not have positions of command, their advice often overruled that of regular soldiers.
“One thing is to learn from them, another to receive instructions.”
A former soldier himself, Chavez left the army for politics after leading a failed coup in 1992. He is now overhauling the military with major investments in weapons, while creating a reserve guard, or militia, he says is designed to help defend the country in case of invasion. Cuba has a similar militia.
Chavez says Cuban aid, in exchange for cheap oil, has been a great help to Venezuela and says his model of “21st century Socialism” differs from the system on the Caribbean island, not least because of Venezuela’s multi-party democracy.
Opponents seize on his close friendship with former-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the apparent Cuban influence in his thinking as evidence that he is dragging Venezuela into a Castro-inspired communist system.