The New York Times February 25, 2007
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.
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 in January by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency pegged Venezuela’s arms purchases in the past two years at $4.3 billion, ahead of 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 Mr. Chávez’s “agenda to neutralize U.S. influence throughout the hemisphere,” contrasting Mr. Chávez 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. Raúl Isaías 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.
Supporters of the arms buildup contend that under Mr. Chávez, who has been in power for eight years, Venezuela has spent proportionately less on its military in relation to the size of its economy than the United States or than other South American countries like Chile and Colombia.
In 2004, the last year for which comparative data were immediately available and before Venezuela’s arms buildup intensified, overall defense spending by Venezuela, including arms contracts, was about $1.3 billion and accounted for about 1.4 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 4 percent in the United States and 3.8 percent in Colombia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks military spending.
Doubts persist as to how powerful Venezuela’s armed forces have become in a regional context, even as they acquire new weapons. Military experts here say pilots in the air force still need training to start flying their new Russian fighters. And in terms of troop strength, Venezuela’s 34,000-soldier active-duty army still lags behind the armies of Argentina and Brazil, with about 41,400 and 200,000 members respectively, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site that compiles data on military topics.
Pro-Chávez analysts also say the president is less adventurous in relation to military policy outside Venezuela than predecessors like Luis Herrera Campíns, who supported Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982 to detract attention from a decline in oil revenue 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 Mr. Chávez 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 Mr. Chávez could be arming parts of the army, the new civilian reserve and partisans like the Frente Francisco de Miranda, a pro-Chávez political group, that would be loyal to him in the event of fractures within the armed forces.
General Muller Rojas, the president’s military adviser, said concern about the arms purchases was overblown, pointing to reports that Venezuela was considering an acquisition of nine diesel-powered submarines from Russia for about $3 billion.
He said the navy had “aspirations” for more submarines, but that no “concrete plan” for such a large contract had been developed.
“We simply have an interest in maintaining peace and stability,” General Muller Rojas said, describing the Caribbean as a crucial to its military influence. “We have no intent of using the Venezuelan armed forces to repress human rights.”
© Copyright 2007, The New York Times Company