A Venezuelan military defector who claims President Hugo Chavez is developing ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaida said he plans to meet this week with U.S. officials in Washington.

Air Force Maj. Juan Diaz Castillo, who was Chavez’s pilot, told WorldNetDaily in an interview yesterday through an interpreter that “the American people should awaken and be aware of the enemy they have just three hours’ flight from the United States.”

Maj. Juan Diaz Castillo

Fermin Lares, spokesman for the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, said he could not comment officially on allegations made by Diaz and the other military dissidents.

After an attempt on his life, Diaz said he was smuggled out of Venezuela in the hull of a fishing boat last month and now is in Miami. He confirmed that his family is in hiding after leaving their home in Valencia, Venezuela, over the weekend due to death threats.

Diaz said he will warn U.S. officials of Chavez’s direct involvement with international terrorism and his formation of a bloc of Latin American countries opposed to the United States.

“My objective here in the U.S. is to show who Chavez really is and the danger he represents for the whole Western Hemisphere and especially in Venezuela,” Diaz told WND.

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs said it would not comment on Diaz or his allegations in accordance with protocol.

Diaz said he was part of an operation in which Chavez gave $1 million to al-Qaida for relocation costs, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. He 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.

Many of the officers have relocated to a public square in Caracas, vowing to protest along with thousands of Venezuelans until Chavez leaves. The dissidents have set up a website in English, MilitaresDemocraticos.com, through which they warn of the president’s alleged efforts to “Cubanize” the country.

In addition to his purported al-Qaida links, Chavez has been warmly received in travels to Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, China and Libya.

‘Axis of good’

Diaz said Chavez is in the process of forming a bloc of Latin American countries that “will promote terrorism and also direct action against the economy of the United States.”

The leaders of Cuba, Brazil and Ecuador are on board with Chavez, he said, and they “now are aiming at Argentina.”

New Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

On his first day in office last week, Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had breakfast with Chavez and dinner with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The Associated Press reported that da Silva is projecting the image of a leftist alliance in Latin America that Chavez already has nicknamed the “axis of good.”

In Ecuador, the election of former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez on Nov. 24 has prompted analysts to ask whether the new president is “another Chavez.”

Diaz said the alliance will start looking for alternative markets, such as Asia, that could hinder U.S. efforts to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005.

‘Social explosion’

But the Chavez regime cannot last much longer, Diaz believes.

“The people are really radicalized against Chavez and the country is on hold,” he said.

President Hugo Chavez

Though the economy is in steep decline, with food shortages and massive unemployment, “Chavez insists on staying in power,” he said.

“Our main objective is that his exit would be institutional and democratic,” said Diaz, “but Chavez is promoting a social explosion.”

Unless something changes, he sees an uprising, or “civil war,” on the horizon, possibly within the next month.

Most Venezuelans would like to see a constitutional transition of power, concurred Stephen Johnson, a former State Department officer who now serves as Latin America policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Sometimes people who oppose a leader like this are afraid of what they may lose,” Johnson said. “That’s why they are agitating to get him to resign.”

Chavez could be removed through a referendum in the fall or sooner through impeachment by the national assembly, he said.

Recent polls indicate as many as 90 percent of Venezuelan voters want immediate elections, though Chavez’s term ends in January 2007.

Johnson said, however, that not many Venezuelans “are thinking ahead as to what kind of government should replace him.”

“They obviously can’t continue, as in the past, with a caretaker state in which the elites did not take care of democracy,” he said, noting that a major party ran a former Miss Universe for president in 1998.

“One must seriously question a government that relies excessively on the oil industry to take care of Venezuela instead of developing a business environment where private enterprise can flourish,” he said.

Yesterday, following a call by the opposition to stop paying taxes, thousands of Venezuelans marched to the offices of the federal tax agency and ripped up their tax forms, according to news reports.

Chavez responded to the protest in a speech he ordered broadcast on all television and radio stations.

The president warned that the government will “take all actions necessary to make sure every last cent is paid, because it belongs to the people.”

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