September 19, 2009

Chavez's Growing Armory Puts Venezuela Back in U.S. Spotlight

Chavez's Growing Armory Puts Venezuela Back in U.S. Spotlight

September 16, 2009

Fresh from a visit to Moscow, a gleeful Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pored over diagrams and charts showing his latest arms purchases.
"We're ready for you!" he warned on a TV show -- a warning directed at the United States and Colombia.
Chavez's growing armory, including the advanced S-300 missile defense system along with 92 tanks he is buying from Russia, has put him back where he is happiest: challenging U.S. power and playing to his home crowd.

Russia this month lent $2.2 billion for arms to Venezuela, where it has growing oil interests. It is not clear how much the latest weapons purchases cost.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week accused Chavez of fueling an arms race in South America.

At home, former soldier Chavez portrays himself as defender of Venezuela's oil reserves, threatened he says, by an attack from the "Yankee empire." He uses U.S. criticism to bolster his argument that America wants a weak Venezuela.
"They know they'll have to do many things to get access to Orinoco oil, because while this government is here they will never see those reserves," said Chavez, who often evokes a 2002 coup initially welcomed by Washington to back his claims.
Venezuela has some of the world's largest oil reserves, mainly close to the Orinoco river. Despite their mutual hostility, the United States is the OPEC country's main buyer.

Chavez went ahead with the arms purchases despite a sharp drop in oil income which forced budget cuts earlier this year.

Government TV stations, newspapers and websites echo Chavez's warnings of an attack, which most analysts say are unfounded but are fueled by a new deal giving the United States more access to Colombian military bases.
"This is Chavez bluster but it's an upping of the ante, said Matt Gertken, a Latin America analyst with risk consultants Stratfor. "He is once again rhetorically raising the stakes and garnering a little more attention."
On the world stage, Chavez is committed to countering U.S. foreign policy and longs to be a diplomatic heavyweight. While that status may be a long way off, his ever closer ties to Russia and Iran keep him on Washington's radar.

Russia and Venezuela last week made it clear they will undermine new oil sanctions the United States may seek against Iran over its nuclear program.

Risks of war in the region remain low, analysts say, but the recent arms purchases only add to distrust in the Andes, where relations between Ecuador and Colombia are strained and Chavez is winding down trade with Bogota.

In part, the regional tensions are linked to Washington's war on drugs, which has financed $6 billion in aid to Colombia to fight armed groups and cartels involved in the cocaine trade. Last year that war briefly spilled into Ecuador, sparking a crisis.

Venezuela objects to Colombia's security agreement with Washington that will allow U.S. troops into more Colombian bases to help fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.

Colombia and the United States fear Venezuelan arms will find their way to Colombia's Marxist rebels, although Chavez denies he has ever backed any armed movements.

South American economies grew rapidly in recent years on the back of a commodities boom, allowing the countries of the region to retool long-neglected armed forces.

Analysts say their real external threats are minimal, but some spending is justified by the need to control territory from drug traffickers and insurgent groups.

Venezuela had an added need to replace equipment because its former main arms supplier, the United States, refuses to sell spares for equipment it sold to previous governments.
"Since 1998, when things began souring between the U.S. and Venezuela, Caracas has required modernization of its fleet," said Eduardo Gamarra of the Florida International University.
Venezuela's arms spending as a share of domestic product is on a par with Brazil and well below Chile and Colombia.

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