Venezuela's Chavez Asks Russian Military For Help
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The president of Venezuela is building a military alliance with Russia. Hugo Chavez claims the US is plotting his overthrow, and he needs Russia to support him. Critics say Chavez is trying to draw attention away from the country's problems like high inflation and runaway crime before elections in November. What everyone agrees on, is there's an echo of the cold war in the new relationship. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas, Venezuela.
(Soundbite of song from a pro-government rally)
JOHN FORERO: The song at a pro-government rally says it all - Yankee go home. Speakers at the rally repeat President Chavez's frequent claims that the United States is plotting an invasion or an assassination attempt, and that the Yankees will be stopped dead in their tracks. As in all these rallies, this one includes placards of George Bush with a Hitler-like mustache, the sale of books commemorating the struggle against American imperialism.
(Soundbite of song from a pro-government rally)
FORERO: And of course, revolutionary music celebrating the Latin-American left. It's impossible to not feel that Venezuela these days is like Cuba in 1962 bracing for an American attack.
(Soundbite of Cuban ad)
Unidentified Man: Castro has put every able-bodied man through military training.
FORERO: An American news reel captured those tensed days when the United States really did plan an invasion. And Fidel Castro prepared his people. That was during the Cuban missile crisis when the soviets put nuclear missiles on the island. War was avoided when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pulled out with Washington promising never to invade Cuba. Now Chavez, who reveres Castro and considers him a father figure, has invited the Russian military to Venezuela.
(Soundbite of Venezuelan program)
FORERO: Venezuelan state television showed a September meeting between Chavez and Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia extended one billion in credit so Venezuela could buy more arms. Chavez has already signed contracts to buy 3.4 billion in Russian weaponry including helicopters, assault rifles and Sukhoi jet fighters.
(Soundbite of Sukhoi jet fighters)
FORERO: Which he showed off at a recent air show. Russia now says it's going to help Venezuela develop nuclear-powered energy. In September, the Kremlin gladly sent strategic bombers to Venezuela for military exercises. And now, four Russian warships are steaming toward Venezuela, the first time Russian forces have been in the Caribbean in a generation. Stephen Flanagan says the Kremlin's moves are a response to American support for Georgia, which lost a brief war with Russia in August. Flanagan is a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Mr. STEPHEN FLANAGAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): It's a signal to the United States that if United States is going to engage in security cooperation with countries along its periphery that Russia can show that it too can play at that game.
FORERO: Chavez and the Kremlins say the military maneuvers are peaceful and that the Russian warships arriving in November do not carry nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has downplayed the exercises but Chavez had delighted in the Russian's arrival saying it is a message to the empire, meaning the United States.
Prime Minister HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: As in this recent speech, Chavez warned that plans are a foot to ousting and Venezuela must neutralize the threats. It's tough talk and it's been a constant for merely a decade. Former Venezuelan general Francisco Uson who was once close to Chavez says his former boss is obsessed with closely replicating episodes of Cuba's revolution.
Mr. FRANCISCO USON (Former Venezuelan General): I think Chavez is looking to follow the experience of the Fidel Castro in Cuba and he's trying to have an alliance with Russia, trying to generate some kind of influence in the area.
FORERO: Another official once close to Chavez is Milos Alcalay, ambassador to the United Nations until 2004. Alcalay says Chavez needs to agitate his supporters with talk of an invasion ahead of the elections. That's to distract from serious problems that have chipped away at the government's popularity.
Mr. MILOS ALCALAY (Former Ambassador, Venezuela): I think that he repeated so much that at the end he will believe it.
FORERO: Chavez's followers certainly believe it, like Carmen Gudoy(ph). She's a social worker who was at the pro-government rally.
Mr. CARMEN GUDOY (Chavez Supporter): (Spanish spoken).
FORERO: She says that the president is not alone. He'll be defended by the people. Her words were buttressed by the music playing that day. The rally soundtrack featured folk songs that were called Castro's Cuba.
(Soundbite of music)
FORERO: Like at this one, which talks about fighting back against great odds, and coming out on top. Juan Forero, NPR News Caracas.