March 22, 2008
LIMA, Peru -- Hugo Chavez has been accused of using Venezuela's oil riches to meddle in Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Now, Peru's president says the Venezuelan leader may be doing it here by funding militants and anti-poverty centers that preach populist revolution.
In recent weeks, Peruvian police have arrested nine people the government alleges are militants bankrolled by Venezuela. And the head of a Congressional investigatory committee accused Venezuela of supplying funds to outreach centers he says agitate against the government.
President Alan Garcia supports the ongoing investigation into the centers.
Venezuela and allies Bolivia and Ecuador "want to destabilize Peru so that our country adheres to their type of thinking, so that Peru fails," said the government's lead anti-terrorism prosecutor, Julio Galindo.
Venezuela vehemently denies the allegations, and denies funding Peruvian militants or the anti-poverty centers. Venezuela's ambassador in Peru, Armando Laguna, said the government should "ask me to leave Peru" if it finds proof.
The accusations come in the context of a regional showdown over alleged Venezuelan and Ecuadorean attempts to destabilize Colombia's U.S.-backed government. Colombian authorities claim a seized rebel laptop indicates that Venezuela planned to give $300 million to rebels fighting to topple it.
The opposition in Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia have accused Chavez of funneling funds to political pals. Among the alleged recipients is Ollanta Humala, the fiery populist Garcia narrowly defeated in 2006. Venezuela has denied the charges, which have never been proven.
The arrested Peruvian militants allegedly are from the Coordinadora Continental Bolivariana, a Venezuela-based leftist movement. Authorities say its Peruvian members are mostly former militants of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, which was all but decimated in 1997 after it took hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.
Peruvian officials say they arrested seven members on Feb. 29, including the group's alleged leader, Roque Gonzalez, who spent eight years in prison for kidnapping a Bolivian politician. Two more alleged members were arrested on March 17 trying to carry in $65,000 from Ecuador - money Peruvian authorities suspect is Venezuelan.
But Coordinadora founder Fernando Rivero told The Associated Press in Venezuela that the group is entirely autonomous. While it supports the "revolutionary struggle" of Colombian rebels to more equitably distribute wealth, it receives no support from Venezuela, he said.
Garcia calls the anti-poverty centers, which have sprung up in poor Peruvian neighborhoods over the past three years, "a rallying point for everyone who is against the democratic system and national institutions," according to the Andina state news agency.
Congressman Rolando Sousa says there are 150 centers, and accuses Venezuela of funding them. He persuaded Congress this month to formally extend his investigation into the centers, granting it the power to scour phone and bank records to track their sources of support.
"Where does the money come from?" he asked.
The head of one of the centers says their goals are humanitarian, and that they have helped thousands of poor Peruvians get medical care they could not otherwise afford. They deny any Venezuelan funding.
"We only give information to our people" about medical and educational programs, said Marcial Maydana, who runs a center in the highland city of Puno.
Many of the medical procedures are performed in Venezuela and Bolivia, often by Cuban doctors, he said, but insisted the trips are paid for by Peruvian mayors and transportation companies when the patients cannot afford them.
A former Peruvian interior minister, Fernando Rospigliosi, said he believes the Garcia government is exaggerating the influence of the missions and the Coordinadora.
It wants "to make the public believe that social movements arising for other reasons can be attributed to external influence," he told The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.