By IAN JAMES
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 6:55 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that members of the country's civilian militia should be issued weapons to be armed and ready at all times.
The Bolivarian Militia is a force of volunteers ranging from students to retirees formed in recent years by Chavez, who says it is a crucial component of the nation's defenses.
Until now, members of the militia have regularly trained at weekend boot camps, but their guns have usually been locked away in military depots when not in use.
"Who has seen a militia without weapons?" Chavez said during his Sunday television and radio program. He said he was surprised when he met some militiamen standing guard recently and learned they had no guns.
"The militias are the people with weapons in hand," Chavez told an audience including military officers and high-ranking officials in rural Guarico state.
"We need to break old paradigms because we're still seeing the militias as if they were a complementary force, some battalions that get together once a month over there, or go and march somewhere," Chavez said. "No, buddy. The militia is a permanent territorial unit and it should be armed, equipped and trained - campesinos, workers."
Chavez also suggested that the country should accelerate the formation of militia units.
The militia is named after Simon Bolivar, the independence hero who is an inspiration for Chavez, and its members range from housewives to engineers to public employees. Men and women in the militia regularly attend weekend training sessions where they learn to fire cannons, mortars and machine guns.
Diosdado Cabello, one of Chavez's longtime confidants, has said the militia comprises about 120,000 fighters and is growing.
Chavez, who survived a failed coup in 2002, says the militia should be prepared to defend the country against any threat, foreign or domestic. He has said he believes the United States poses a threat to his oil-exporting country, though U.S. officials strongly deny it.
Opponents of the leftist president say the militia is essentially a personal army for Chavez aimed at intimidating his adversaries, maintaining control and keeping him in power.