The United States has criticized Venezuela’s recent spate of arms purchases, viewing it as potentially unsettling to Latin America. Venezuela defends the buys as bolstering its national security.
In March, Venezuela concluded deals for 10 military helicopters from Russia and 12 military transport and surveillance aircraft and eight naval patrol vessels from Spain. It also is close to finalizing a deal for 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia and is reportedly weighing possible purchases of light attack aircraft from Brazil. Longer-term plans include potentially buying more advanced combat aircraft from Russia.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in an April 5 interview with The Miami Herald called Spain’s arms sales to Venezuela a “mistake” and questioned the oil-rich South American country’s need for so many AK-47s.
In March 15 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Bantz Craddock, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), noted that Venezuela’s military now includes up to 80,000 service members and questioned the fate of “excess new weapons and…displaced weapons.” The concern is that extra arms might end up in the hands of Colombian guerrillas or other nonstate actors. SOUTHCOM is in charge of U.S. military operations in and relations with Central and South America.
Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alvarez Herrera told Arms Control Today April 21 that the recent purchases are part of a military modernization program that has been planned for more than 10 years. He said the objective is to “increase operational capabilities, reduce equipment failures, and replace outdated and discontinued equipment whose life is between 20 and 25 years of operation.” Herrera dismissed U.S. criticism, noting that “no national or international norm is being violated.”
The U.S. government’s top concerns about Venezuela’s behavior is its “undemocratic direction” under President Hugo Chavez and tolerance for terrorist groups, Colombian guerrillas, and drug traffickers seeking safe haven within its borders, according to a Department of State official interviewed April 18 by Arms Control Today. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said March 31 that Venezuela “is playing a destabilizing role in the region.”
The United States has a strong stake in the Colombian government’s attempts to combat narcotraffickers, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. As part of a six-year aid effort called Plan Colombia, the United States has allocated nearly $5 billion in assistance to Bogota since 2000.
Still, the Pentagon is not severing its ties to the Venezuelan military. Currently, 26 U.S. military officials are stationed in Venezuela. Craddock explained, “We would like to maintain contact for the influence…because we bring a lot to the table.”
In addition, the United States is still fulfilling past contracts to help maintain F-16A fighter jets it delivered to Venezuela in 1983. The U.S. government in 2004, however, barred the conclusion of any new F-16 support contracts because of Venezuela’s failure to take sufficient action against illegal human trafficking in and through its territory.
The Venezuelan F-16 deal was an exception to a de facto U.S. ban on advanced weapons sales to Latin American instituted by President Jimmy Carter. The Clinton administration rescinded the Carter ban in 1997 to permit U.S. companies to compete for combat aircraft sales to Chile. (See ACT, August 1997.) Since then, Chile has agreed to buy several U.S. fighters, and U.S. arms firms have participated in a bid for Brazil’s currently suspended tender for fighter aircraft.