Venezuela Works on Its Defenses

President Hugo Chavez has been on an arms buying spree, with Russia providing much of the hardware at hefty prices. What are the implications of Venezuela's buildup?

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been replacing old weapons systems. The move is being watched closely by other countries in the region, as well as by Washington. The U.S. has imposed an arms embargo on Venezuela, but the Venezuelan leader, flush with oil profits, has been able to find new sources. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Caracas.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

With the U.S. no longer the defense supplier of Venezuela, Russia has stepped in as President Chavez's arms merchant of choice. Anna Gilmour of the U.K.-based intelligence assessment group, Jane's Country Risk, says Moscow is now supplying Chavez equipment for all branches of his armed forces.

Ms. ANNA GILMOUR (Jane's Country Risk): He's been buying patrol boats for the navy, also helicopters and fighter planes for the air force, as well as rifles for the army. And in particular, he's just signed a new deal with Russia, which is totaling around three billion.

McCARTHY: Gilmour says the $3 billion deal also gives Venezuela the first license in South America to manufacture Russian AK-103 rifles.

Ms. GILMOUR: So they'll be able to construct both the rifles and the ammunition in Venezuela. It's the first time it's been able to do this.

McCARTHY: The big-ticket Sukhoi jet fighters would replace the American F-16s. Colonel Joe Nunez, with the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, says the Russian fighter jets can be used to counter an attack or to launch one.

Colonel JOE NUNEZ (U.S. Army War College): But mostly these types of arms, the fighter jets and even the helicopters, are more offensively minded.

McCARTHY: Nunez says he would expect that Venezuela's aging arsenal would need a reasonable amount of upgrading, but says the new acquisitions go beyond that.

Col. NUNEZ: And the question becomes to what purpose is this build-up being achieved. President Huge Chavez is stating that he's trying to protect his country against any aggression, and specifically he's accusing the United States of working to overthrow his regime through military means, which is not the case.

McCARTHY: Chavez is renowned for rebuking Washington.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): In my bad English, you are a donkey, Mr. Danger.

McCARTHY: He calls President Bush Mr. Danger, and Bush foreign policy imperialist. Chavez and his supporters tend to see the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another oil-rich state, as a precedent for Venezuela. The tour of a U.S. aircraft carrier through the Caribbean this spring has fed suspicions. Against this backdrop, Chavez has announced plans to install a state-of-the-art anti-missile defense system.

(Soundbite of music)

McCARTHY: During one of his recent Sunday broadcasts, Chavez describes why the defense system is needed.

President CHAVEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

McCARTHY: Compatriots, he says, we have the primary oil reserves of the world here, great wealth. And the North American empire, he says, is a menace with hegemonic intentions.

Fernando Ochoa, who was Venezuela's defense minister in 1992, says nonsense. Ochoa claims Venezuela's rush to re-arm is part of a bid by Chavez to enlarge his own stature.

Mr. FERNANDO OCHOA (Former Defense Minister, Venezuela): (Through translator) In his heart, Chavez does all this to consolidate prestige in his anti-imperial and anti-North American thesis. But all this has a fundamental limitation that he cannot change. He is not the U.S. or China or India. Unfortunately, small countries have to understand that we are small. He's punching above his weight.

McCARTHY: Even with its build-up, Venezuela's defense outlays don't come close to those of neighboring Brazil and Columbia, and Bogotá is fighting an insurgency with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, a fact not lost on President Chavez. Yet it's Venezuela that's causing concern in the region. Colonel Joe Nunez says the stabilizing influence that Brazil traditionally exercises could be eclipsed if Venezuela is not checked by its neighbors.

Col. NUNEZ: Brazil is starting to see that what Venezuela gains within the region is something that Brazil could potentially lose, and that tension is something that will have to be addressed.

McCARTHY: The U.S. arms embargo against Venezuela has chilled some European sales to Caracas. So has the alliance Hugo Chavez has formed with regimes such as Iran. But professor Eduardo Gamarra, of the International University in Miami, says Russia has no hesitation about trading with Venezuela. But he does not believe that Moscow's arm sales to Caracas are meant to deliberately defy the U.S.

Professor EDUARDO GAMARRA (International University, Miami): I don't think that the Russians are looking at selling arms to the Venezuelans as a way to stick it in the eyes of the United States. But more importantly, they're looking at it as an opportunity for profit. It's a business strategy, frankly.

MCCARTHY: Gamarra adds the United States has done the same thing over and over. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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