Venezuela Spending on Arms Soars to World’s Top Ranks
By SIMON ROMERO
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 24 — Venezuela’s arms spending has climbed to more than $4 billion in 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 like 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 Chávez’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 like 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 oil for the United States. But distrust of such statements persists here after the administration tacitly supported a coup that briefly removed Mr. Chávez 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.
José Sarney, the former Brazilian president and a leading senator, caused a stir this week when he was quoted in the newspaper O Globo as describing Venezuela’s form of government as “military populism” and “a return to the 1950s,” when Venezuela was governed by the army strongman Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
“Venezuela is buying arms that are not a threat to the United States but which unbalance forces within the continent,” Mr. Sarney said. “We cannot let Venezuela become a military power.”
Still, officials in the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil have been hesitant to publicly criticize Venezuela’s arms purchases.
The issue remains delicate after the Brazilian company Embraer lost a deal to sell military aircraft to Venezuela because the planes included American technology.
After turning unsuccessfully to Brazil and Spain for military aircraft, Venezuela has become one of the largest customers of Russia’s arms industry ...full text