U.S. Bars Future Arms Sales to Venezuela

Wade Boese

Underscoring its continuing unhappiness with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Washington announced May 15 that future U.S. arms sales to Venezuela would be prohibited. Although Venezuela is not a major U.S. arms buyer, Venezuelan officials denounced the action.

Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack said May 15 that the ban stemmed from a determination that Venezuela was not being helpful in the U.S. war on terrorism. McCormack provided more specific examples a day later, saying Venezuela was cementing closer intelligence ties with Iran and Cuba, serving as a transit point for arms and individuals of concern, and maintaining links to Colombian guerrilla groups.

The U.S. move outlaws any new U.S. government and commercial arms deals with Venezuela. The ban is not retroactive, so deals previously concluded can be filled. In addition, U.S. exporters can, up to 24 times a year, provide spare parts worth less than $500 for previously sold equipment, according to statements by McCormack May 17.

A precise accounting of what might be in the arms pipeline to Venezuela is difficult to ascertain as companies have four years to act after a commercial arms sales license is approved. In addition, the Pentagon does not have to publicly notify Congress of any arms sales it concludes with a foreign government unless the deal exceeds $14 million. The last agreement with Venezuela that topped this reporting threshold occurred in 1996.

Still, Venezuela in recent years has been procuring some U.S. arms, including spare parts for 24 F-16A combat aircraft purchased in the early 1980s. In its latest comprehensive accounting of weapons deals with foreign governments, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency reported that, from fiscal year 1994 to fiscal year 2004, Venezuela received approval for $184 million in arms purchases from the Pentagon and $103 million in arms buys from U.S. companies. Whether all these agreements were completed is unknown.

Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Alí Rodríguez Araque blasted the U.S. move May 16 as an attempt to “handicap our defenses” and “prepare the political conditions for an attack.” In a May 19 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, denied the U.S. allegations and asserted Washington was seeking to “isolate, antagonize, and destabilize Venezuela.”

McCormack responded May 16 to Araque’s statements by arguing that “instead of throwing up sort of diversionary rhetoric and overheated rhetoric, [Venezuela] might focus instead on actually taking steps to fight terror.”

Washington recently also has been pressing Brazil and Spain to deny arms, such as military aircraft and naval patrol boats, to Venezuela. (See "Latin American Arms Sales Moving Forward," March 2006.) Comments by Araque and Herrera suggest that the United States is having some success, although Arms Control Today inquiries to confirm the status of the deals were not answered.