CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles urged Venezuela's armed forces to stay out of politics in a carefully crafted plea Thursday to an institution that has long been molded by President Hugo Chavez.
During 13 years in office, Chavez has endeavored to place his political stamp on the military command, promoting trusted officers and also giving former barracks comrades key political posts.
On Sunday, Chavez used an appearance at a military graduation ceremony to accuse Capriles of seeking to foment violence by trying to made inroads in poor neighborhoods, which have long been bastions of support for the leftist president.
The Capriles camp accused Chavez, a former paratrooper, of seeking to politicize the armed forces.
"The current government wants to confuse political rights with party activities, showing disrespect for soldiers and their families," Capriles said in a speech broadcast by private television channels Thursday night. "The cult of personality they try to establish in our armed forces makes it lose its bearing, that's not the mission of a commander in chief."
Chavez, who led bloody but failed 1992 coup attempt, insisted during a news conference on Monday that soldiers "will be the first ones to support the will of the majority, whatever it is."
During the election, soldiers are responsible for keeping order and safeguarding voting equipment and voter rolls. And because the election is expected to be hotly contested, there are fears that tensions could boil over into violence.
"Never before in Venezuela's history is their role going to be so decisive in maintaining calm inside polling stations," Rocio San Miguel, leader of the independent watchdog Control Ciudadano, said of the nation's troops.
Opposition concerns of potential armed forces meddling in politics were spurred by a close Chavez confidant, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who told a newspaper in 2010 that the military would refuse to recognize an election victory by the opposition.
"A hypothetical opposition government starting in 2012 would be selling out the country; the armed forces are not going to accept that," Rangel was quoted as saying at the time by the newspaper Ultimas Noticias.
Chavez defended Rangel, who was then a member of the joint chiefs of staff, and later appointed him defense minister.
Several senior military officials, including Rangel, have been accused by the United States of assisting drug traffickers and supplying arms to Colombia's leftist rebels, who also have taken refuge in Venezuelan territory.
Chavez rejects the accusations.
Capriles said that if he wins election, he will prevent Colombian rebels from seeking refuge in Venezuela.
He also made an indirect reference to accusations that some members of the military have been corrupted by criminal organizations.
"We cannot permit drug-trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitary groups to infiltrate and use our institutions," he said.
Venezuela is the departure point for aerial cocaine smuggling to the United States, according to U.S. officials.
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