SAN JUAN DE LAS GALDONAS, Venezuela – Camouflaged soldiers jumped from boats into the surf and waded ashore in a mock assault Thursday, the latest in a series of Venezuelan military exercises preparing for a U.S. invasion that President Hugo Chavez warns could come.
Hundreds of men, women and children met the troops on the beach, some shouting “Gringos go home!” and “Freedom!” The soldiers ignored them and hiked into their small fishing town, stone-faced as they spread out and took control.
Other Venezuelan troops, playing the part of resistance forces, hid nearby in the mountains that run along the Caribbean coast, ready to attack the invaders.
Chavez, a tough-talking nationalist who accuses the Bush administration of trying to overthrow him, says close cooperation between the military and civilian defense groups is key to resisting any U.S. attack. American officials insist there is no such plan, but Chavez says the South American country must be ready just in case.
“We have to be prepared in case of a war,” agreed resident Magaly Rojas, 38.
Smiling children ran after the troops on the beach, and a couple of burly men shoved soldiers back into the sea before an officer explained that wasn’t part of the drill.
“That’s what is going to happen to the Americans if they come here,” said Wolfang Pino, a 44-year-old electrician.
The beach assault was the culmination of a series of military exercises that began in the area in late August, including evacuations to simulate a natural disaster, officials said.
The navy chose to hold the exercises in San Juan de las Galdonas, a fishing town of about 1,700 people on the Paria Peninsula, which is one of the country’s northernmost points, some 190 miles northeast of the capital, Caracas.
Navy commanders proclaimed the training, which included 2,500 military personnel and 100 civilians from reserve and territorial guards, a success.