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Recent high-level Venezuelan military defectors say President Hugo Chavez gave $1 million to al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States.
Air Force Maj. Juan Diaz Castillo, formerly a pilot for the Venezuelan leader, was smuggled to Miami last week where he is warning the U.S. of what he calls Chavez’s dismissal of the constitution and his ties to terrorism in collaboration with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Major Juan Diaz Castillo
“I must warn America about Chavez,” Diaz said. “He is a danger, not just to his own people but to the whole region.”
Diaz is one of more than 100 military officers who have quit the Chavez regime as the president tries to hang on to power amid a month-long general strike that has cut off oil exports, his primary source of income.
For the past 77 days, many of the officers have relocated to Plaza Altamira, a major square in Caracas, vowing to protest along with thousands of Venezuelans until Chavez leaves. Calling themselves members of a pro-democracy resistance movement against Chavez, the officers have set up a website in English, MilitaresDemocraticos.com, through which they warn of the president’s alleged efforts to make the country a terrorist state.
Among the resisters are the former military attache in Washington, Enrique Medina Gomez; former head of the navy, Hector Ramirez; ex-U.N. attache for Venezuela, Carlos Alfonzo Martinez; the inspector general of the National Guard; and nearly 30 other generals.
President Hugo Chavez
In addition to his purported al-Qaida links, Chavez has traveled to Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, China and Libya to build ties and is supporting FARC, the rebel group in Colombia.
Diaz says Chavez transferred $1 million to the Taliban through Venezuelan Ambassador Walter Marquez in New Delhi, designating $900,000 to al-Qaida for its relocation efforts and $100,000 to the then-Afghan government for food and clothing, according to MilitaresDemocraticos.com.
The story was the top headline in Sunday newspapers across Venezuela, further galvanizing popular resistance to Chavez.
Over the weekend, threats on Diaz’s family at his home in Valencia, Venezuela, prompted him to have them moved to an undisclosed location with the help of colleagues in the resistance movement, according to an American businessman who helped bring Diaz to the U.S.
Diaz is a “man of highest integrity,” who has risked his life to speak out, Shane Conner told WND.
Conner has made numerous trips to Venezuela in the past two years and developed close contacts among some of the military resisters. The owner of ki4u.com, he sells radiation protection equipment to governments, militaries and private individuals.
Open channel with al-Qaida
Diaz, who piloted the president’s Airbus jet, said he was put in charge of an initial plan in September 2001 to transport cargo to the Taliban via three Hercules C-130 airplanes. According to Diaz, however, Chavez’s chief of staff decided instead to only send money after learning that the cost of transportation outweighed the value of the goods.
Asked for a response to claims of Venezuela’s ties to al-Qaida and terrorism, the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs said that as a rule it does not comment on allegations of that kind.
Diaz said that Chavez sent the aid to open a direct channel of communication with al-Qaida.
“It was a way of telling Osama bin Laden that he had a friend in Hugo Chavez,” he said, according to MilitaresDemocraticos.com.
The Venezuelan leader had tried unsuccessfully to contact al-Qaida through Libya, Diaz said.
The military dissidents note that Chavez disappeared during the 48 hours after the 9-11 attacks. After emerging, he told foreign reporters he opposed terrorism but said on Venezuelan television that the “United States brought the attacks upon itself, for its arrogant imperialist foreign policy.”
Chavez expressed admiration for the attacks in private, according to Gen. Pedro Pereira, formerly the highest-ranking general in the Venezuelan air force and still a Chavez loyalist in 2001.
“With 9-11, bin Laden showed the whole world that he was a force to be reckoned with. This impressed Hugo to no end,” the general remembered, according to MilitaresDemoraticos.com.
The day after the attack, Chavez supporters held a celebration in which they burned the American flag in the main square of Caracas.
Cash bore fruit
After scrapping the plan to transport supplies to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, responsibility for the mission was handed over from Diaz to Carlos Otaiza, brother of Army Capt. Elieza Otaiza Castillo, former head of Chavez’s secret service.
Diaz, though he no longer was in charge, still “saw a lot of what was going on” from his vantage point in the presidential palace.
The cash was transferred in late September to Marquez in India, since Venezuela does not have representation in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Diaz said that on Oct. 3, 2001, a Venezuelan government representative contacted Kris Janowski of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan to inform him of a humanitarian delivery for the Taliban to create a cover story for the cash designated for al-Qaida.
Diaz said the cash bore fruit and a line of communication opened.
“In the last few months of 2001, and all throughout 2002, more and more Arabs started arriving” in Caracas, Diaz said, according to MilitaresDemocraticos.com.
The Arabs received special treatment from Chavez, Otaiza and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, former head of the Interior and Justice Ministry under Chavez and now, according to the Venezuelan press, a “party boss in the Chavez political machine” who has operated under multiple identities.
Diaz, noting that revelation of these facts and others put military resisters in even greater danger, said an attempt was made on his life on Dec. 16 by Chavez’s secret service, the DISIP, on the freeway between Caracas and his home in Valencia.
The major went underground and was smuggled out of the country in the hull of a fishing boat on Christmas Eve by friends in the resistance movement. He stayed in Curazao, in the Dutch Antilles, until he could arrange safe passage to the United States.
Chavez is growing increasingly desperate in his hold on power, Diaz says, refusing to allow free and democratic elections and vowing to stay in power until “at least 2021.”
The president does not care what people think, he said.
“Referendum to remove me? That is not possible; don’t waste time. I will not go in a referendum. I say that to the country and the world. It’s like this: I won’t go,” Chavez said in November.
Diaz said that Chavez tries to emulate Castro.
“It sounds bizarre, but Chavez is a bizarre man,” Diaz said, according to MilitaresDemocraticos.com. “He was already starting to go off the rails in 2001, and he wanted direct contacts to all the major terror groups in the world.”
Two Miami radio-show hosts known for playing outrageous pranks on the air got Chavez on a private line yesterday by pretending that Castro was calling him from Havana, the Miami Herald reported.
Resistance a family affair
Conner said the military dissidents’ stakeout at Plaza Atalmira has focused and re-energized a resistance that became dispirited and fragmented after the failed coup attempt in April.
Protest at Plaza Altamira in Caracas (Courtesy of Shane Conner)
On his most recent trip, last month, Conner described the people who represent the resistance in the square as “elderly couples with canes, families and kids with bicycles, all waving the flag.”
Conner points out that as the world’s fifth largest oil producer, many Venezuelans enjoy a prosperous lifestyle but have seen it erode under the past five years of Chavez rule. Even the poor, who were Chavez’s base of support, are turning against him as promises go unfufilled.
Nevertheless, while the dire economic situation was once the focus of opposition, since the military began making its revelations, Chavez’s purported terrorist ties and “Cubanization” of the country have taken center stage.
“These people know exactly what they are up against,” Conner said. “Most of the banners have a theme of ‘No Cuba here!'”
Demonstrations are taking place not only in the square but across Venezuela.
“They love their country and are trying to get it back,” he said. “Their weapons are their voices and banging pots and pans.”
The protests have not gone on without a backlash, however. Conner said that on the evening of Dec. 6, he heard what sounded at first like fireworks from the crowd below his hotel room overlooking Plaza Altamira.
Suddenly, he realized the sounds were not part of the protest as a dozen staccato shots soon were followed by screams. When he looked out the window, he saw hundreds of unarmed civilians running and diving for cover.
Five died and 29 were wounded by gunmen, according to the official report.
To his amazement, however, less than 40 minutes later, about one-third of the original crowd of 2,000 came back into the open, while the blood was “still wet and glistening,” and defiantly resumed their program, he said.
Bloody scene at Plaza Altamira in Caracas (Courtesy of Shane Conner)
Noting that cameras relayed the scene around the nation, Conner said he hoped the event would later be seen as the turning point for the end of the Chavez regime.
The recently published global attitude survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington shows 82 percent of Venezuelans have a favorable attitude toward the U.S., the highest of all 44 countries polled.
Also, 79 percent favor the U.S. war on terrorism, with just 20 percent opposed.