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Chavez: Troops Should Fight Poverty

March 3, 2002

PUNDA, Curacao (AP) _ Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged his own troops and those of neighboring countries to fight poverty in the Caribbean and Latin America.

By doing so, soldiers would strengthen democracy and help stabilize the region, Chavez said Saturday.

Widespread poverty, disease and malnutrition ``have a direct impact on the stability of our nations, and stability in the region,″ he said.

``I think that the armed forces of our countries can do much more than they have done so far in supporting the fight against poverty,″ Chavez told military officers from Venezuela, Holland, France, and the Dominican Republic.

The former military officer’s statements came a day before Venezuela, the United States, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic were scheduled to begin war games off Puerto Rico.

Venezuela has not participated in the annual games since Chavez took office in 1999.

One of Chavez’ flagship social programs puts soldiers to work fixing roads, painting schools and running bargain food markets for Venezuela’s poor majority.

Critics claim the program weakens the armed forces because soldiers are drawn away from their traditional role of defending the country. They also argue that the program is prone to graft and takes jobs away from those needing them most.

Chavez told about 200 naval officers that the Venezuelan military also is increasing its capacity to fight drug trafficking, terrorism and international crime.

Chavez’s nation of 24 million people is a major transshipment point for illegal drugs smuggled out of Colombia for delivery to the United States and Europe.

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