A central feature of changes being brought about by President Hugo Chávez is the new, civilian branch of the Venezuelan military called the "territorial guard."
About 100,000 citizens, mainly from poor communities where support for Chávez burns hottest, have joined the guard during the past three years, according to members who participate in weekly training sessions at more than a dozen camps set up around the country.
"The training is varied and includes personal defense, kung fu, map reading and law-and-regulations classes," said Luis Arocha, 40, who has trained on weekends for the past year with a guard unit based on the grounds of a former military
While Arocha and others say the main focus of the training is natural-disaster response preparedness and personal security, the guard has prompted suspicion among Chávez critics and some international observers.
A report issued in September by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, maintains that Chávez has "embarked on a military buildup to counter alleged U.S. plans to invade his country."
In addition to signing contracts with Russia worth $3 billion for military airplanes and helicopters, the report claims, Chávez has "agreed to buy some 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles to arm a new reserve force."
Chávez has spoken publicly of a desire to grow the guard to a force of 1 million in preparation for what he calls a looming "war of resistance." And in an October 2005 appearance on the BBC, he claimed that his government had detected U.S. plans to invade Venezuela.
Creation of the territorial guard has coincided with deteriorating relations between the United States and Venezuela. Early this year, Chávez expelled the U.S. embassy's naval attaché from Caracas on accusations he was spying on the Venezuelan military. In speeches, he regularly accuses the CIA of backing a failed coup against him in 2002.
Earlier this year, former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler, and the State Department announced a ban on arms sales to Venezuela, citing a lack of support by Chávez's government for the war on terrorism.
U.S. authorities in Venezuela have publicly dismissed Chávez's claims about a looming U.S. invasion. William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, has said the United States "will never invade Venezuela."
Still, some in Venezuela say U.S. authorities should take Chávez's warnings seriously.
"The worst thing that one can do is think this is just rhetoric," said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan author who has written extensively on Chávez's rise to power.
Garrido, who writes a column for Caracas' opposition El Universal newspaper, said the territorial guard fits into Chávez's long-term strategy to eventually cut all ties with the United States.
"Relations with the U.S., for Chávez, are purely tactical in order to grow his system and then eventually cut oil to the U.S. and prepare for military invasion," he said, adding the territorial guard will serve as a civilian framework for the traditional military to dissolve into and fight a guerilla war against U.S. forces.
"What they're planning for is an Iraq effect," Garrido said.
Members of the growing territorial guard paint a different picture.
"There are many lies being told about what the purpose of the territorial guard is," Arocha said. "The idea that there is guerilla warfare training going on is false. Basically it's training to help in case of a natural disaster.
"The vast majority of people training in the guard are not using any kind of weapons, not even the Russian-made rifles," he said. "Those are only for the regular military."
Luisa Nieves, 53, a coordinator of free health clinics in Caracas, said she joined the territorial guard as a means of expressing her patriotism and a solidarity with Chávez.
"We're volunteers, we do it from the bottom of our hearts," Nieves said.