Venezuela now top buyer of arms in Latin America

Weapons spending exceeds $4 billion over past 2 years

February 25, 2007|By New York Times News Service

CARACAS, Venezuela --Venezuela's arms spending has climbed to more than $4 billion through the past two years, transforming the nation into Latin America's largest weapons buyer and placing it ahead of other major purchasers in international arms markets such as Pakistan and Iran.

Venezuelan military and government officials here say the arms acquisitions, which include dozens of fighter jets and attack helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, are needed to circumvent a ban by the United States on sales of American weapons to the country.

They also argue that Venezuela must strengthen its defenses to counter potential military aggression from the United States.

"The United States has tried to paralyze our air power," Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a member of President Hugo Chavez's general staff, said in an interview, citing a recent effort by the Bush administration to prevent Venezuela from acquiring replacement parts for American F-16s bought in the 1980s. "We are feeling threatened, and like any sovereign nation we are taking steps to strengthen our territorial defense," he said.

This retooling of Venezuela's military strategy, which includes creation of a large civilian reserve force and military assistance to regional allies such as Bolivia, has been part of a steadily deteriorating political relationship with the United States.

The Bush administration has repeatedly denied that it has any plans to attack Venezuela, one of the largest sources of imported oil in the United States. But distrust of such statements persists here after the administration tacitly supported a coup that briefly removed Chavez from office in 2002.

Venezuela's escalation of arms spending, up 12.5 percent in 2006, has brought harsh criticism from the Bush administration, which says the buildup is a potentially destabilizing problem in South America and is far more than what would be needed for domestic defense alone.

The spending has also touched off a fierce debate domestically about whether the country needs to be spending billions of dollars on imported weapons when poverty and a surging homicide rate remain glaring problems. Meanwhile, concern has increased among Venezuela's neighbors that its arms purchases could upend regional power balances or lead to a new illicit trade in arms across Venezuela's porous borders.

After turning unsuccessfully to Brazil and Spain for military aircraft, Venezuela has become one of the largest customers of Russia's arms industry.

Since 2005, Venezuela has signed contracts with Russia for 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, 50 transport and attack helicopters, and 100,000 assault rifles. Venezuela also has plans to open Latin America's first Kalashnikov factory, to produce the Russian-designed rifles in the city of Maracay.

A report last month by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency pegged Venezuela's arms purchases in the past two years at $4.3 billion, more than Pakistan's $3 billion and Iran's $1.7 billion in that period.

In a statement before the House Intelligence Committee, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, called attention to Chavez's "agenda to neutralize U.S. influence throughout the hemisphere," contrasting Chavez with the "reformist left" exemplified by President Michelle Bachelet of Chile.

Beyond Russia, Venezuela is also considering a venture with Iran, its closest ally outside Latin America, to build a remotely piloted patrol aircraft. Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, the Venezuelan defense minister, recently told reporters that the project to build 20 of the aircraft could be used to bolster border surveillance and combat environmental destruction in Venezuela. Venezuela is also strengthening military ties with Cuba, sending officers and soldiers there for training.

Pro-Chavez analysts also say the president is less adventurous in relation to military policy outside Venezuela than predecessors like Luis Herrera Campins, who supported Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982 to detract attention from a decline in oil revenues and climbing inflation.

But critics of the arms purchases say they are being made with little participation from or discussion with the National Assembly, which recently allowed him to govern by decree for 18 months.

Ricardo Sucre, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, said that the lack of transparency of the weapons contracts had heightened concern that Chavez could be arming parts of the army, the new civilian reserve and partisans such as the Frente Francisco de Miranda, a pro-Chavez political group, that would be loyal to him in the event of fractures within the armed forces.

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