Washington: The United States voiced alarm Monday that Venezuela’s weapons purchases may be fueling a Latin American arms race after a deal between Caracas and Moscow to buy tanks and anti-aircraft rockets.
In Caracas, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that Venezuela had obtained a 2.2-billion-dollar credit from Russia for the purchases, a move an analyst says suggests the leader’s real fear of conflict over Venezuela’s huge oil and gas resources.
“We have concerns in general about Venezuela’s stated desire to increase its arms build-up, which we think poses a serious challenge to stability in the Western Hemisphere,” US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.
“What they are looking to purchase and what they are purchasing outpaces all other countries in South America,” he said.
Chavez said Venezuela is buying 92 Soviet-era T-72 main battle tanks, 300-millimeter Smerch multiple launch rocket systems, and vehicle-mounted Russian Antey 2500 surface-to-air missile systems targeting incoming missiles.
Kelly was responding to questions over reports that Venezuela’s anti-US president also wanted Russia’s help to pursue a peaceful nuclear program and about possible fears Caracas would import nuclear or other technology from Iran.
“We urge Venezuela to be transparent in its purchases, and very clear about the purposes of these purchases,” Kelly said at a daily press briefing.
“And we’re also very concerned that they put in place very clear procedures and safeguards that these arms are not diverted to any irregular or illegal organizations,” he added.
Chavez has long expressed a desire to improve his nation’s military with Moscow’s help, and the substantial deal comes amid rising tensions between Caracas and Bogota over Colombia’s decision to allow the United States access to several military bases on its territory.
The firebrand leftist has repeatedly criticized the United States, but has insisted that the latest purchase was not directed against any other country.
Chavez stressed that his country had the “right to take the minimum necessary steps” to protect its national security and massive oil and gas reserves as “the empire has set its sites on them.”
Latin America’s loudest US critic often describes the United States as an empire.
The growing presence of Chinese, Russian and Spanish firms in the vast Orinoco oil belt, fields believed to be among the largest in the world, provide “a new geopolitical dimension as we establish the parameters of our military and our sovereignty,” Chavez said.
It will be a “big purchase that raises concerns from both a qualitative and quantitative point of view. The president has said he feels threatened, which means there is a hypothesis of conflict,” analyst Elsa Cardozo said.
The most worrying thing is that Russian-Venezuelan arms deals are taking place against a regional backdrop in which “the tendency to work cooperatively and transparently on defense matters has been abandoned,” Cardozo told AFP in Caracas.
In recent years Venezuela has signed over four billion dollars worth of arms contracts with Russia, and last November its navy held joint exercises with Russian warships in the Caribbean, traditionally seen as a US domain.