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Venezuela defense min. vows soldiers will never again be deployed against civilians
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' Venezuela's military chief promised Monday that soldiers will never again be deployed against civilians as the country marked the anniversary of a bloody crackdown that helped spur President Hugo Chavez's early aspirations for power.
"We are sure that the (armed forces) will never again use their weapons against the Venezuelan people," read a message on Defense Minister Henry Rangel's Twitter account.
Officials held rallies to commemorate the anniversary of 1989 disturbances known as the "Caracazo," when soldiers were sent to control violent protests against rising gas prices. At least 300 people died in the unrest.
Chavez, who was in the military at the time, has said that the harsh response was a horror that motivated him to try to seize power a coup in 1992. The attempt failed, but it made him a household name in Venezuela and he won election through the ballot box eight years later.
Chavez was in Cuba Monday for surgery to remove a tumor in the same part of the body where he had a cancerous growth taken out last year.
Chavez, 57, said he would undergo tests over the weekend and go under the knife early this week, but both Venezuelan and Cuban authorities have been silent about his health since then. His last public comments came in a phone call late Friday to Venezuelan state television.
When Chavez was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery last year, Venezuelans learned about it after the fact via a brief announcement by Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro on June 10.
He was out of sight from early that month until June 30, when he spoke from Havana about his operation.
Security outside Havana's Cimeq research hospital, where many speculate an operation on Chavez would likely take place, was low on Monday, a possible indication that the Venezuelan leader was not yet at the facility.
Traffic flowed freely in the surrounding streets, and a waiting room was filled with Cubans who had regular appointments. The only sign of any stepped-up precautions was that guards asked visitors to give their names and license numbers before leaving their vehicles in a hospital parking lot, a measure in effect for more than a week.
Cuban and Venezuelan officials have never confirmed where the operation will take place, but Cimeq, a Spanish-language acronym for Center for Medical Surgical Investigations, is an obvious choice.
Launched in 1982 to attend to Interior Ministry and state security officials, a number of foreign dignitaries have passed through its wards, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
Cimeq doctors would likely care for Chavez in a highly exclusive section usually reserved for high-ranking Cuban government and military officials. Fidel Castro presumably was treated here for the grave intestinal illness that forced him from the presidency in 2006.
The area is closed to the public, offering Chavez complete privacy.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.