Saturday, July 28, 2007

Venezuelan Arms

Much has been made in the US about Venezuela spending $3 billion on a new array of arms. Why, some Americans ask, does Chávez need such weapons if he doesn't have regional ambitions of extending the "Bolivarian Revolution"? The claim then develops that Chávez is not only a domestic dictator but also potentially an imperialist of his own stripe. The US then seeks to build up concern about Chávez in the region and bluster in the US (even using that old fear-mongering standby: that Chávez harbors al Qaida terrorists!). Even if the US has no plans to beef up direct destabilization programs in Venezuela for the time being (and I have no idea on this one way or the other), the rhetoric - which Chávez also participates in - serves to maintain an unstable relationship with the leadership of the country and frame the Chávez government in the same terms as Ahmadinejad's Iran and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea. The comparison is ridiculous, but this group identification now shows up in illustrious places such as the Washington Post and New York Times as if it is common knowledge. What the grouping does represent is a small victory for the US in the rhetorical battle over ignorant citizens and knee-jerk partisan hacks, as well as lazy journalists.

This article is much closer to reality in terms of the facts and the reasoning behind the various political stances. The US has set up a rhetorical battle with Chávez that Chávez uses for his own political gain, and vice versa. Chávez seeks to export the ideology of the Bolivarian Revolution, but I know for a fact through contacts at the ministerial levels that the Venezuelan government has no intention of becoming another Cuba. I have been told by some that Venezuelan is not even "anti-capitalist," but is simply faced with their huge poverty problem, a problem long-neglected by those in Venezuela that the US government supports. On the other hand, when chavistas claim that the CIA is operating in their country - and opposition figures and Americans scoff at the idea - the chavistas are correct. Indeed, I personally witnessed CIA recruitment classes running openly in a wealthy opposition district of Caracas.

So, is Chávez just another paranoid dictator? Perhaps. But not yet. Is the US an actually threatening state? Perhaps not, but it is making clear to Venezuela that it maintains the potential and will to overthrow the elected Venezuelan government. If the US is truly concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases, then it is engaged in backwards policy towards the country because its own threats have contributed to - perhaps prompted - Chávez's sense that there is a need for new arms. Any observer of US-Venezuelan relations must simply understand this if they wish to engage in a reality-based discussion. Unfortunately, not many people on the American or Venezuelan side wish such a discussion because they have created the appearance of hostility and this apparent hostility has been shown to be politically advantageous in different ways for both sides.
...since 2006 Caracas has withstood an embargo by the superpower in military weapons, equipment, and spares parts. Israel and Sweden could join this boycott. Since the May 2006 naval maneuvers carried out in the Caribbean by the United States, Holland, and Great Britain, alarms went off in Chávez's country because they were the largest undertaken in the region since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In August of that same year it became known that the U.S. National Intelligence Agency had created a special post for specific intelligence and operations tasks for Cuba and Venezuela.

As of that time Caracas began purchasing weapons, but it had to resort to countries that do not have good relations with Washington, among them Russia, China, and Iran, although also Spain. Already more than 52,000 AK-103 machine guns have been delivered of the 100,000 bought from Russia to replace Belgian FALs dating back to the 1950s. It also seeks to buy anti-air M1 Tor missiles (similar to the ones just acquired by Iran), 24 SU-30 jetfighters, 30 transport and attack Mi-35 helicopters, all from Russia, and half a dozen Military Corvettes and a dozen Spanish transport airplanes.

Until now Venezuela has spent US$3 billion in weapons and now there is speculation that it could acquire between five and nine conventional submarines (diesel-electric). According to military analysts, despite the fact that the submarines are not of the latest generation, they "constitute a potential threat to any naval or amphibious operation," as shown by the Falkland Islands War, when a single, old Argentine submarine created enormous difficulties for the British forces.

Although it doesn't amount to talk about a regional arms race, the truth is that Chávez appears to be developing a defense strategy. From the Iraq experience he has learned the importance of armed militias in the development of an asymmetric war in the face of a possible invasion. That explains the massive purchase of machine guns, which he might be in the position of manufacturing if negotiations to erect a plant in Venezuela come to fruition. At the same time, if he chooses to buy the submarines he might be indicating that the country may be preparing itself for an eventual blockade by sea that could disrupt petroleum exports.

In any case, it is best to take the above facts with a grain of salt. Venezuela depends as much on petroleum exports as the United Status depends on imports from that country. Imports of Venezuelan crude increased from US$15.2 billion in 2001 to US$34 billion in 2005. Venezuela is already the third largest exporter of petroleum to the United States, having displaced Saudi Arabia from that position.

See also this very good article on American aid activity within Venezuela. That is, if you want to understand the situation rather than simply provide fodder for your own pre-established political position.

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