President Hugo Chavez's plans to build the first Kalashnikov factory in the Western Hemisphere are sowing fears Venezuela could start arming leftist Latin American allies with the fabled Russian assault rifles.
Chavez denies such ambitions, saying his government bought 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 assault rifles and a license from Moscow to make Kalashnikovs and ammunition, to defend the nation against "the most powerful empire in history" — the United States.
Political opponents and critics suspect the president and former paratrooper has other intentions, such as providing foreign allies like Bolivia and communist-led Cuba with arms while forging a hemispheric anti-Washington military alliance.
"Our president has always had a warlike mentality, but now it appears this mentality is turning into a mission that could easily extend to other parts of Latin America," said William Ojeda, a journalist and former Chavez ally who plans to challenge the president in December presidential elections.
Chavez has said "Venezuelan blood would run" if the United States were to invade Cuba or Bolivia, but has never said Venezuela would provide them with weapons.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush also is concerned about Chavez's intentions.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that Venezuela appeared to be in the midst of an "outsized military buildup for a country of that size and [considering] the nature of the threats" in the region.
"They've already purchased 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles from Russia. So I'm not quite sure what else they might need a factory for," McCormack said. "It certainly raises serious questions about what their intentions are."
The first 30,000 of those rifles have arrived in Venezuela, with the rest due by year's end.
"If the president says he'll send Venezuelans to defend other Latin American nations, nobody should doubt that he's willing to send them weapons as part of his anti-imperialist vision," Ojeda said.
Ojeda pointed out that Bolivian President Evo Morales referred to Chavez as his "commander" during a recent ceremony commemorating the 78th anniversary of the birth of the legendary revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Chavez loaned a helicopter and pilots to Morales to ferry him around in the weeks ahead of a July vote for a constituent assembly that will rewrite the Bolivian Constitution.
Chavez vehemently denies that recent defense deals worth an estimated $2.7 billion constitute a military buildup or that he poses a threat to regional stability, as U.S. officials allege.
The president's military advisers argue that Venezuela needs new assault rifles to replace outdated weapons such as Belgian-made FAL assault rifles — and to have enough firearms for up to 2 million reservists.
Gen. Alberto Muller, a Chavez adviser, said annual production capacity at the Kalashnikov factory would range between 20,000 and 30,000 rifles per year. Construction is expected to begin within four to five years, he said, but Chavez may want to build it sooner.
The Kalashnikov is currently manufactured in more than a dozen countries, including Egypt and Poland. Imitations are also widely produced. It is used by the armed forces of more than 50 countries as well as militant groups from Afghanistan to Somalia.
"So far we don't have any exportation project because the domestic requirements are so high," Muller said.
But defense analysts say corrupt officials in Venezuela's low-paid armed forces raise the possibility that the nation's weapons and ammunition could wind up in the wrong hands — a likely concern in neighboring Colombia, where leftists rebels have been battling the government for more than four decades.
"Colombia will certainly be concerned about the ammunition factories to be built in Venezuela," said Anna Gilmour, a Latin American defense expert at the London-based Jane's Information Group.
Unlike assault rifles, ammunition lacks serial numbers and is thus untraceable.
Then there is the issue of civilian militias.
"I understand the FALs are to be diverted to the new civilian militias, in which case they will be extremely hard to keep track of, and will probably enter the gray market almost immediately," Gilmour said.
Military authorities have said that strict controls, including serial codes inscribed on each rifle, prevent them from being stolen or sold.
Venezuela is also buying 15 Russian helicopters for $200 million, and U.S. officials are concerned by Chavez's announcement last week that Venezuela would buy 24 Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets this year.
McCormack said Washington will ask the Russians to reconsider the transactions.
After personally handing out shiny, new Kalashnikovs to soldiers on Wednesday, Chavez inspected one of the new AK-103s.
"I don't miss with this rifle," said Chavez, training the gun on the horizon.