"The military purchases of Chávez suggest the behavior of someone who entered a department store with lots of money and loved almost everything."
There's a dangerous game going on in Bolivia and Ecuador, but it's a game that, initially, will cause only internal confusion. The most dangerous game at the moment is that of Hugo Chávez, which promises to cause tremendous external confusion. One of the most worrisome aspects was about the addition of nine Russian submarines to Venezuela's already formidable arsenal.
The huge purchases of military equipment by Chávez exceeds $3 billion, although included in that figure are long term contracts. The respected International Institute for Strategic Studies (known in English by its acronym IISS) states in its latest report that amongst Latin American countries, the biggest security and defense budget, in absolute terms, continues to be Columbia’s ($4 billion) – the Colombian government’s war against a diverse group of narco-guerrillas has already lasted 40 years.
The second biggest spender is … Chávez, with a budget just over $2 billion. He has surpassed both Argentina and Chile, who have slightly lower budgets (but much stronger military traditions). But what is most impressive is the rate of increase Venezuela's military spending. Between 2005 and 2006, Venezuela’s defense budget rose 33 percent (in comparison, Colombia’s rose by less than 10 percent, while the rate of increase in Chile and Argentina was negligible).
The military purchases of Chávez suggest the behavior of someone who entered a department store with lots of money and loved almost everything. He purchased 100,000 AK-47 rifles, which are rarely used in the Americas (aside from Cuba and FARC narco-guerrillas in Colombia), including an ammunition factory. Although the Bolivian government denied it last weekend, information is circulating that some of the 100,000 light automatic rifles that will be replaced by the AK-47s will be going to Bolivia.
The shopping list of the Venezuelan President with dictatorial powers included anti-aircraft defense systems, patrol ships such as the Russian submarines but mainly, Russian Sukhoi-35s, a fighter plane without equal amongst Latin American air forces. What's most impressive about this machine, which is designed to compete with the American F-15 and F-18, is its long range: 3400 kilometers [about 2100 miles]. In terms of onboard electronics, nothing in South America rivals it.
In the midst of all this, it is clear that Venezuela hasn't made a millimeter of progress in joining forces with the other countries bordering the Amazon: there is an absence of a government presence and security within Venezuelan territory. The Orinoco Belt, for example (where Chávez is taking some important oil exploration projects away from big oil), has for over a decade been the area preferred by criminal groups exporting huge amounts of drugs from South America to Europe.
The behavior of the Venezuelan commander carries with it the type of military insecurity that the region seemed to have rid itself of, at least since the end of disputes between Brazil and Argentina and, mostly, Argentina and Chile. Do you see the reason? Based on ideological motives, Chávez pushed Argentina and Brazil to pull out of joint naval exercises in 2006 with the United States (the Pacific coast countries participated as planned). Most likely this year, in a sign of force, the Americans will "stroll" the South Atlantic with an aircraft carrier "battle group."
Aside from the inside of Chávez’ unbalanced mind, there is no real danger or military threat to the sovereignty and integrity of his country. The money he spends on weapons adversely effects many sectors in Venezuela, and will be felt even more with oil prices stabilizing around at around $50 per barrel (a drop of over 30 percent in the last six months). But there is one other external factor that is very worrisome.
Part of Venezuela's fighter aircraft will be modernized in Iran, according to Roberto Godoy. It would be foolish to suggest that armed forces in Latin America should abstain from buying equipment and systems where they are cheaper, more competitive and, mostly, where you can obtain the transfer of technology, despite the wishes of the Americans. But Chávez is bringing Iranian and Russian arms merchants here principally to provoke the United States (which is notoriously restrictive on the transfer of military and "dual use" technology).
Far from admiring Chávez, Brazilian military officials are openly saying that he is bringing conflicts to our hemisphere that never existed here before and that are none of our business [reference to Iran and the crisis in the Middle East]. In this sense, Chávez’s weapons are deeply disturbing.
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