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Guns in school draw ovation;Briefing;International

VENEZUELA.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has decreed that all schoolchildren will be given military training.

The former paratrooper and ex-coup leader has ruled that children in the 2,200 primary and secondary schools must be given lessons in military strategy, weapons handling and national sovereignty issues.

Senor Chavez, 44, who was educated in military schools, first announced the "militarisation" of schools during a four-hour speech to Venezuela's teachers' union in the capital, Caracas. He received a standing ovation when he said that military training would make Venezuela more efficient, and capable of raising itself above years of political corruption and economic mismanagement.

The director of Venezuela's educational programmes, Freedy Dominguez, has welcomed the initiative and said it amounted to creating government-funded boy and girl scout programmes in every school. "This does not mean that all our children will become soldiers, but it will make them into more diligent and responsible Venezuelans," he said.

At last week's two-day summit of European Union, Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Rio de Janeiro, Senor Chavez reiterated that he wanted to "build an army of patriotic Venezuelans".

"The military is the only sector of Venezuelan society which has not been tainted by 40 years of corruption - it has a lot to teach our children," he said. "Our soldiers will go into the schools to teach lessons on war and defence, but also on discipline and national pride."

Much of this idea comes from Senor Chavez's desire to build a nation modelled on its founding liberator, Simon Bolivar, a soldier who drove the Spanish from Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, by 1821.

Senor Chavez launched a foiled armed coup in 1992 against what he called the "dirty and corrupt" government of former president Andres Perez, who was later impeached for his misconduct. The then paratrooper was imprisoned along with several other comrades in arms, but was released in 1995 to start a populist election campaign, and elected president last November. He took up the post in February and has now said he will be choosing a military man to lead the education initiative.

By mid-September military officers will go to all state school classrooms to give lessons in armaments, geopolitics and past military heroes. Also, army barracks will give pupils PE lessons.

Meanwhile, more than 70,000 military service recruits have also been given tasks which had normally been the work of civilians - paving roads in rural areas, and launching a campaign to sterilise women in very poor villages.

Even Senor Chavez's staunchest supporters cannot fail to wonder whether his painfully long speeches and now his orders to militarise schools are not an attempt to mimic Castro, in neighbouring communist Cuba.

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