CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela president Hugo Chavez warned Sunday that government opponents were planning to interrupt Copa America in Venezuela by staging streets protests and possible transportation strikes.
Chavez urged authorities – including Venezuela’s Armed Forces and state intelligence services – to neutralize any effort aimed at disrupting the tournament, which is being hosted in Venezuela for the first time from June 26 to July 15.
"This plan continues developing. We are defeating it, but they are not going to give up," said Chavez, speaking during his weekly radio and television program. "No more surprises. We won’t let them put us on the defensive. We don’t lose the offensive impulse."
Sitting at a desk in front of a crowd gathered at a cattle ranch in Los Llanos – Venezuela’s heartland – Chavez read a column published in the pro-government VEA newspaper, stating that radical groups "are looking for the transportation sector to call a national strike … and have the protests coincide with Copa America to create national and international commotion."
The Copa America, South America’s soccer championship for nations, this year will include the United States and Mexico as invited guests.
The Venezuelan leader did not elaborate on the alleged plans or what groups might be involved, but he noted the newspaper column pointed to "conspirators" purportedly behind recent student protests.
University students who have led the recent protests – most of them against a government decision that forced an opposition TV station off the air – deny they plan to disrupt Copa America. But students have not ruled out the possibility of peaceful demonstrations during the tournament.
Chavez has derided student protesters as U.S. "pawns," saying they do Washington’s bidding by taking to the streets. Students reject the allegations as totally unfounded, arguing university groups have taken it upon themselves to protest government efforts aimed at muzzling the opposition.
Venezuela’s government has spent at least US$1 billion to construct two new stadiums, remodel seven others, and renovate airports and surrounding areas for Copa America. Tens of thousands of soccer fans are expected to travel to Venezuela for the tournament.
Chavez told his audience the tournament would be "a historic event," but lamented that he would miss the inauguration due to an upcoming foreign tour.
"The teams are starting to arrive, there’s happiness," he said. "Venezuelans, the people, the local governments, are working hard to decorate the cities and finish the stadiums."