“It isn’t a secret as to who might come. Venezuela is oil-rich, and the imperialist countries have kept an eye on our natural resources for some time now,” explained Captain Jose Nunez of the Bolivarian Naval Police. It was eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning in June, and I was seated, sweaty and barely awake, along with a group of 20 other journalists at a naval base in La Guaira, Venezuela. Packed into a sparsely furnished conference room, we listened to the captain explain why the government of President Hugo Chávez had decided to invite the press to a week’s worth of war games. The military wanted the world to know that Venezuela was ready to greet the “imperialists” should they decide to stop by for a visit. This day’s demonstration had been billed as the largest and most action-packed of those scheduled. A mock invasion was set to take place on the beach, with the government using tanks and companies of “elite amphibious fighters.” “Seven hundred and twenty-five professional naval combatants and approximately 2,200 civilians will be involved in the day’s activities, and we will show how we have integrated the people with the military,” the captain stated.
We were taken to the docks, where the captain announced that he would first demonstrate how the Venezuelan populace might smuggle arms past an occupying force. Three statues of the Virgin Mary lay on the ground, each nailed to the top of a long, slim, rectangular box. A pair of machine guns and a spare clip of ammunition were hidden inside each box. Sets of sanded wooden poles sprung from the sides of the boxes, so that the civilian participants could hoist the statues over their heads as though they were carrying Cleopatra, not chipped plaster. The civilians who had gathered for this exercise were an unexceptional bunch. Most wore fresh jeans, clean white t-shirts, and red hats embroidered with the acronym for Chávez’s political party, the Fifth Republic Movement. At the captain’s signal, they picked up their assigned Virgin Marys and marched forward, slowly but surely, covering the 50 paces down the docks toward the waiting motor boats. At the head of the procession marched a woman chanting Hail Marys and crossing herself while cheap fireworks were shot into the air, exploding 30 feet above our heads in a simulation of cannon fire.
We left the docks and piled into boats: a guerrilla armada of gringo journalists, Venezuelan naval reservists, and chipped plaster statues. It was a short boat ride to the next beach. The Marys would be unloaded during the mock invasion; the procession would continue into the poor neighborhoods of the city, where the boxes would be dismantled and the weapons handed out to the eager populace. Or so we had been promised. In fact, we were out to sea for just under 90 minutes. Our small motor boat had no potable water, no shade, and stalled out twice. When we finally arrived at our destination, there were no tanks and no military personnel. Instead, the beach was packed with sunbathers who marveled at the spectacle as the boats circled and the captains argued among themselves. No one, it seemed, had bothered to notify the pilots that the beach was both rocky and lacked a dock. “Man, if you guys do decide to come,” said my Venezuelan photographer, “it’s going to take ten minutes to kick our asses.”
Finally, one of the skippers exercised some initiative, shouting at the sunbathers to jump into the water and help. A group of well-tanned teenagers waded up to the boats, lifted the statues over their heads, and carried them to dry land. As each one was set down, the onlookers applauded and crossed themselves. “And what about us?” asked my photographer, nervously fingering his camera. Our captain nodded to the side of the boat. “Jump,” he said.
It would be easy to write off a day like this as yet one more example of the absurdity of Chávez’s antiimperialist rhetoric. To do so, however, would be to miss the point. Like Fidel Castro before him, Chávez’s support is largely dependent on whichever enemy he presents as an imminent threat. When he assumed power in 1999, that threat was the Venezuelan political establishment. In the last seven years, however, Venezuela’s opposition has crumbled. Enter George W. Bush and the specter of a U.S. invasion, a subject Chávez spends far more time discussing these days than the possibility of an opposition candidate running against him in this December’s elections. The American president’s preemptive, unilateral invasion of another oil-rich country is all the evidence Chávez needs to convince his most ardent supporters that U.S. intervention in Venezuela is a real possibility.
And the United States has completely underestimated Chávez, playing into the Venezuelan president’s hands time and again. When Donald Rumsfeld compares Chávez to Adolf Hitler—or Condoleezza Rice calls for the creation of a regional “united front” to contain his influence—they are merely adding fuel to the fire. In the last few weeks, Chávez has simply taken to saying that the only person running against him is Bush.
There was no other choice than to follow the lead of the teenagers and wade for shore. Barefoot and soaked to my thighs, I marched up the beach in an angry, thirsty, and sunburnt huff. Nunez was there, his expression grim as he watched the whole affair unfold. I asked him what had happened to the the elite amphibious fighters, the tanks, the 2,200 civilians. He seemed tired; his arms were folded across his chest and his hat was pulled low over his eyes. Without looking at me, he answered as if by rote. “The tanks came by when you were out to sea, and the civilians, they are hidden all around you, watching, learning, taking notes,” he said. “This is guerrilla warfare, after all.”
This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.