In command of the Bolivar Battalion, a military unit of Spanish speakers fighting in Ukraine, Venezuelan José David Chaparro gives us an interview to talk about the objectives of this new battalion, but also about the ties between the Kremlin and Latin America

Commander Chaparro: "In Venezuela there are factories that assemble Iranian and Russian suicide drones used against Ukraine"

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - José David Chaparro, founder and commander of the Bolivar Battalion, a new military unit made up of Spanish-speaking volunteer fighters who will fight alongside the Ukrainian Army

José David Chaparro arrived in Ukraine for the first time in 1989. The former USSR granted him a scholarship to study for a postgraduate degree in Law, but when he arrived in Moscow he discovered that students from countries "not aligned with communism" (Venezuela in the 1980s was not) were sent to Kiev. 

The fall of the Wall in 1991 found him there, and he saw at first hand how the difference between Ukraine and Russia became very great from that moment onwards. He says that, despite the fact that the 1990s were marked by a severe social crisis and a deep problem with organised crime and mafias, Ukraine opened up to democracy while in Russia they remained anchored to a system where everything was controlled by the Kremlin. 

In 2000 he returned to Moscow as Chargé d'Affaires of the Venezuelan Diplomatic Corps, and this time he had to be allowed to live in the Russian capital despite his openly democratic and liberal ideas. During his years there, he came to understand that the Russian Federation was a "steamroller", he says, where the state intervened in every aspect of its citizens' lives.

But the Kremlin's interference was not limited to controlling the lives of these Russian citizens, and did not even stop in the countries of the former Soviet orbit. In the following conversation, Chaparro talks about how Putin's tentacles have reached all the way to Latin America. 

In the case of Venezuela, he claims that it has become a social laboratory where the guidelines of Cuba, Iran and Russia - which has placed its Wagner mercenaries to guard the gold mines and oil - are applied, and he also warns that the Maduro government's direct relationship with the war in Ukraine is going unnoticed. 

He receives me in Kiev, at the headquarters of the Bolivar Battalion, of which he is the commander and founder. A new military unit fighting on Zelensky's side in Ukraine, it aims to unite all Spanish-speaking volunteer fighters of "free and democratic thought" around the myth of Bolívar. 

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Commander Chaparro poses at the headquarters of the Bolivar Battalion at the end of the interview

Did Ukraine have such a strong influence on you in your youth that you would go back to fight for it in a war against Russia? 

I have never dissociated myself from Ukraine, because my wife and children are Ukrainian, but I have lived for some time in Russia, where I was Chargé d'Affaires from 2000 onwards, and also in Venezuela. I returned to Ukraine for good in 2013, and arrived just in time to experience the Maidan. Actually, I experienced two "Maidans" at the time: the one in Venezuela, where the "guarimberos" lit the fuse of an anti-government protest that spread through the streets; and then the one in Kiev, which was really violent.

Russian propaganda has disguised the Dombas conflict as a cultural problem and a persecution of Russian speakers, when the reality is that it is the most mineral-rich and industrial area of Ukraine. Was the importance of Dombas understood during those protests that you experienced, before the war started there?

At that time, ordinary Ukrainians themselves were not even interested to see what was there, in the Dombas. It was understood that the oil and gas production fields, the few there are in Ukraine, were there; the power plants, the mines and also the industry... but Russia manipulates so well that it managed to focus on other, more superficial issues until they became the centre of the discourse. 

Moreover, the ill-fated government of President Petro Poroshenko [between 2014 and 2019] destroyed the Ukrainian Armed Forces, completely dismantled them. So when Crimea was annexed and the clashes in Dombas began, you were unable to respond forcefully to Russian interference.   

What moved you personally to take an active part in this conflict? 

Venezuela entered Russia hand in hand with Cuba; there was never a Venezuelan international policy in this sense: the guidelines came from Cuba. And the objectives were very clear from the beginning, so clear that today we even have Russian military bases in Venezuela. 

The reality is that now three external countries are getting their hands on Venezuela, taking away the wealth while the people are eating shit. The new Venezuelan political class sold out national interests to Cuba, Iran and Russia, and they are the ones who are profiting from the country while its citizens can barely think about how to get the arepa for today or the medicines for tomorrow.  

I could not do more for Venezuela, so on 24 February 2022, as soon as the alarm bells rang, I enlisted in the Territorial Defence of Ukraine.

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Detail of one of the walls of the Bolivar Battalion headquarters, where there are flags of different nationalities belonging to volunteer combatants with whom Major Chaparro has worked in Ukraine

What were those first days of the invasion like for a Venezuelan citizen, although closely linked to Ukraine, who decided to take up arms for the first time? 

They were very chaotic moments. I remember the abrupt change in my life that I experienced overnight. That marks you as a human being and forces you to develop the instinct to stay alive. I was stationed here in Kiev, and then I was in Irpin and Bucha. 

It was a very strong experience, I remember looking at the sky and seeing how they were bombing us at a level that had never been seen before in this country. The siege of Kiev was very hard, and then we started to work more on humanitarian aid actions, especially distributing medical aid. I even created a small group of bikers, to bring aid to the front line and even do medical evacuations on motorbikes. Motorbikes are my passion. 

When did you begin to focus your activities on Spanish-speaking combatants and the Bolivar Battalion was born? 

As the months went by, a lot of people from other countries began to come to Ukraine, and I began to take charge of welcoming Latin Americans and also some Spaniards, for language reasons. And the influx of Spanish speakers in Ukraine was really big. I was in charge of training some of the boys and I ended up commanding several groups, and that is partly where the Bolívar Battalion was born. 

On the other hand, since 2014, and more especially since Zelensky came to power in 2019, I have worked to raise awareness of the importance of Latin America and the danger of it being an ally of Russia. Today I think it is clear: between 20 and 30 per cent of the money used by Russia to finance the war in Ukraine goes through Latin American companies and financial structures to circumvent the sanctions imposed on Putin. 

Moreover, the oil, gas and gold they are taking out of Venezuela is also directly financing this war. And, as if that were not enough, in Venezuela there are factories that assemble Iranian and Russian suicide drones, the shahed that they use against Ukraine; and there are factories that produce ammunition and Kalashnikov rifles. 

We are part of this war, Venezuela is part of this war. And I have tried to make the Ukrainian government understand this reality, the reality that the Maduro government is a direct ally of the Russian government, but also that not all Venezuelans agree with that. And there are Venezuelans who are against it, and they are the ones we call to be part of the Bolivar Battalion. 

We chose this name to clean it up and vindicate it. In my country, in Venezuela, the currency is called Bolivar and it is not worth shit. I want to restore the value of the name Bolívar and its democratic and liberal meaning.  

Is this Bolivar Battalion under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence or does it receive independent funding?  

It is under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, and its official formation has taken a little longer to complete all the bureaucratic procedures. But it is already a reality and is open to any man or woman from Spanish-speaking countries, and to any other free-thinking and democratic citizen of the world who feels close to us.  

The ultimate goal of the Bolivar Battalion is the development and training of people who are close to our moral and political establishment and who want to help liberate Venezuela. We prepare them here in Ukraine, and we fight here in Ukraine, but the ultimate goal is Latin America. We know that there are many Venezuelans in exile - in the US, in Colombia, in Spain - who want to do something to reclaim their homeland, and coming to fight with us in Ukraine is one way.

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PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Major José David Chaparro, whose battalion will undertake special operations, has lived in Ukraine since the late 1980s

And what will the military and operational structure of the Bolivar Battalion be like? 

We will be under the command of another Ukrainian brigade, we will be integrated with them, but as an independent battalion. A battalion that at all times will keep in mind its political interests in Latin America, because we are united by the fact that we are Spanish-speaking and also by the Bolivarian myth.

People who join the Bolivar Battalion can fight on a voluntary basis or sign a contract through the International Legion, even if they then work in this unit. In my case, I fight as a volunteer and do not receive a salary, but fighters who want to receive a salary, like Ukrainian soldiers receive for their work, can do so. It is up to the individual to decide.

We will carry out special operations, as we have already done in Kharkiv and Zaporiyia. We are at a time when the aim of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is to break the supply line between Russia and the occupied territories. And we will continue to work in that direction.

Now you do not have to confront the Wagner group on the ground in Ukraine, but Wagner's tentacles have reached Venezuela. How long have you known about its presence there and what are the consequences? 

Wagner has been present in Venezuela for at least ten years. When Russia makes agreements or contracts like the ones it has with Venezuela, it protects or watches over its interests through the Wagner group, just as it does in Africa, it secures its interests through force.  

But when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the presence of recruiters began to be detected among these Wagner troops who were in Venezuela, and they began to train Venezuelans. We don't know whether it was to bring them here or because they needed more people there, but their activity intensified as the war began. And a few months ago there was also an attempt to recruit Venezuelan pilots, which provoked a conflict in the Venezuelan air force.  

What are the consequences of Russia controlling its investments in Venezuela through Wagner's mercenaries? 

We are talking about armed groups that do not abide by international law at any time, much less in dangerous situations. They are mercenaries: first they kill and then they ask questions.  

The indigenous people who live in the territories where there is gold are the ones who are suffering the consequences in a more direct way: if they refuse to leave their land, they are killed. And Wagner is behind this, behind opening the way to the places where the mineral riches are. 

Is the Putin government's interference in Venezuela limited to Wagner's presence safeguarding its financial interests or is there more to it? 

If your country is the leading arms buyer in Latin America and a strategic partner in the exploitation of oil, gas and metals, and if there are Russian military advisors in your country who participate directly in government meetings, how far does Russian interference in Venezuela go? Russia has direct access to the Venezuelan government's decisions; its interference knows no bounds. 

What has been the evolution of Russian propaganda in Venezuela, has anything changed since the invasion of Ukraine began? 

We have two information transmission lines: Russia Today (RT) and TeleSur, which is financed by the government and is like RT in a Venezuelan version: continuous propaganda in favour of the Maduro regime and in favour of Russia in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Since 2014, these media groups have already started trying to counter the narrative of the anti-government protests. For example, TeleSur was showing films while people were being killed on the streets in these demonstrations that were taking place at the same time as the Ukrainian Maidan.  

But from 2017 onwards, with Maduro cornered by citizen protests, the Russians landed directly in Venezuela to take charge of propaganda against these opposition movements, especially on social networks. And they succeeded in suppressing all protests. The reality is that, to this day, there is more talk of "Mother Russia" as an ideological guide than of Hugo Chávez himself and his legacy.