CARACAS (Reuters) - A respected Venezuela general who retired this month said the presence of Cuban soldiers in the army's highest decision-making levels was a security threat, backing opposition criticism of President Hugo Chavez.
Cuban doctors, teachers and sports instructors have flooded into Venezuela since Chavez took office 11 years ago, bringing healthcare to poor neighborhoods but angering critics who say the nation is becoming a copy of the communist island.
In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday, General Antonio Rivero said Chavez was remodeling the army along Cuban lines. He said Cuban military advisers had a free run of the country since 2007 and had access to privileged information.
"Cuban soldiers have been inducing the current transformation of the armed forces," said Rivero, who is considering running for office in September legislative elections.
Rivero's criticism of the Chavez government, where he served as head of the emergency services until 2008, marks the second high-profile departure of a former ally of the leftist president in the last few months.
"We are putting in the hands of an ally information that no country should know," said the burly Rivero, who retired after nearly 25 years in the armed forces because of his concerns.
"In the case of an armed conflict we don't know which side Cuba will be on."
He said Cubans were present in Venezuela's Strategic Operational Command, the top planning body in the military, and that while the foreigners did not have positions of command, their advice often overruled that of regular soldiers.
"One thing is to learn from them, another to receive instructions."
A former soldier himself, Chavez left the army for politics after leading a failed coup in 1992. He is now overhauling the military with major investments in weapons, while creating a reserve guard, or militia, he says is designed to help defend the country in case of invasion. Cuba has a similar militia.
Chavez says Cuban aid, in exchange for cheap oil, has been a great help to Venezuela and says his model of "21st century Socialism" differs from the system on the Caribbean island, not least because of Venezuela's multi-party democracy.
Opponents seize on his close friendship with former-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the apparent Cuban influence in his thinking as evidence that he is dragging Venezuela into a Castro-inspired communist system.
The president, who has taken Castro's mantle as Latin Americas main U.S. critic, has struggled to overcome Venezuela's resolutely Americanized culture of shopping malls, baseball and fast food in his drive to instill socialist ideals in his supporters.
Rivero spent time in jail in the 1990s after taking part in a coup in 1992 that was inspired by the putsch by Chavez earlier the same year. He said he supported some of the things Chavez was doing, including the overhaul of the army, but said the president was increasingly autocratic.
"This government is driving toward the implantation of a autocracy that is practically irreversible," said Rivero, whom Chavez made a general.
Rivero said he may move into politics, possibly as an independent candidate ahead of elections for the national assembly.
In 2007 former Defense Minister General Raul Baduel ended years of loyal service to Chavez and joined the opposition. Last year he was jailed on corruption charges.
In February, the governor of Lara state, Henri Falcon, quit Chavez's Socialist party for a smaller leftist party, saying the president was not open to dialogue.
With the political atmosphere increasingly charged before September's legislative vote, Chavez says his opponents are breaking laws to try to topple him. Several dozen of his foes are now in jail, living in exile or facing probes.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman