If the United States doesn’t invade Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is going to be one very disappointed dictator. He’s promised his people an invasion and one of the many grudges he holds against this country is our refusal, with typical Yankee arrogance, to supply one.

He told the BBC last fall not only that we were going to invade, but that he was in possession of our secret plans to do so. Right away Americans smelled a rat. If these plans are so secret, how come they haven’t appeared in The New York Times? Answer us that, Dictator Boy.

And, Chavez says, the United States isn’t going to risk going one-on-one with Venezuela. No, sir, we’re going to have NATO helping us.

Last month, Chavez held a week of military maneuvers to rehearse repelling the American attack, with Venezuelan marines playing the part of the invaders. Apparently, he’s not real confident of winning, because he has backup plans to set fire to the nation’s oilfields and for the population to melt into the jungle to fight a 100-year, Vietnam-style guerrilla war.

To that end, he has started citizen militias, ordinary citizens who get $7.40 a day to march around and do calisthenics a couple of times a month. A few weeks ago, The New York Times _ still unable to get those secret invasion plans on its front page _ ran a photo of one such militia training. They were led by a cheerful-looking woman named Maria de Lourdes Martinez. She is 74. And the woman behind her isn’t exactly a lean, mean fighting machine, either.

The White House, Pentagon and State Department deny that the United States has any plans whatever to invade Venezuela. The country’s name isn’t even on the long list of places the neo-conservatives who got us into Iraq think we ought to invade. But to Chavez, that’s simply more evidence of the cunningness of the plot.

The larger plot, he says, is President Bush’s “hegemonic imperialism,” which anybody would tell him is impossible as Bush administration policy because the president couldn’t pronounce it.

So what does Chavez have against us? He told a student conference he was hosting last year that the United States was the “most savage, cruel and murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world.” Well, if you’re going to pick on every little thing.

It tells you something that this World Student Festival had previously been hosted by North Korea, East Germany and other satellite nations of the old Soviet bloc.

And Chavez, who seems to be a few volumes of Clausewitz short of a military genius, is turning to Russia for his military supplies. He has just bought 100,000 Kalashnikovs, a fine weapon but one with an uncomfortable tendency to turn up in the wrong hands. He is buying 15 Russian helicopters and 24 Sukhoi jet fighters. Those will be of great comfort to Venezuelan defense planners when the F-22s and Joint Strike Fighters come online.

Meanwhile, to annoy us he’s threatening to sell his current F-16s to Iran. The F-16 is a fine aircraft, but the ayatollahs should ask themselves: “Would we really buy a used fighter from this guy?”

So far, Chavez hasn’t been able to goad or taunt the United States into retaliating against him. He did get the Rev. Pat Robertson to call for his assassination, but ol’ Pat is always saying things like that.

Chavez is beginning to sound like one of those Cargo Cults of the South Pacific waiting and waiting for a U.S. armada that never comes. Sad in a way, when you think about it.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)