Venezuela's military buildup could foment an arms race in Latin America and destabilize the region, security experts say, noting President Hugo Chavez's recent purchase of fighter jets and helicopters and his intent to buy five diesel submarines.
Using his country’s vast oil revenue, Chavez has been busy negotiating deals with nations like Russia to secure arms to bolster the Venezuelan military.
The military build-up comes amid Chavez's most recent show of military force. On Sunday, Venezuelan tanks were deployed to the Colombian border, and Venezuela's embassy in Bogota was closed indefinitely, after Colombia staged a bombing attack on Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels living inside Ecuador. (Colombia believes Chavez is providing support to the guerrilla group; FARC's second-ranking commander was killed in the raid, and Ecuador strengthened its military presence along its border with Colombia.)
Chavez's purchase of military arms is becoming a matter of growing concern for the U.S. government.
“Venezuela's military acquisitions are certainly of concern and could potentially pose a threat to destabilize the region,” said Capt. John Kirby, special assistant for public affairs to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, said that despite the recent saber rattling, the region is traditionally stable. Venezuela and Ecuador's troop deployments have created new regional tensions, and Chavez's recent arms purchases could compel other countries to spend money they don’t have to buy arms.
“The good news is that Latin America is the least militarized continent on the planet," Pike said in an interview. "The bad news is that if Venezuela is arming itself, it could set off a chain reaction and regional arms races.”
Most Latin American governments don’t have a lot of money, Pike said, “and spending a lot of money on arms is not helpful.”
Russia is expected to start delivering several Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi-24 armored helicopter gunships and Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles to Venezuela this year, said Mark Joyce, America’s Editor at Jane’s Country Risk, a branch of Jane’s Intelligence Review, which monitors arms procurement worldwide.
Chavez has talked about purchasing five diesel submarines. In the meantime, Venezuela is set to begin construction this year on a factory that would manufacture assault rifles, Joyce said.
An outspoken critic of the Bush administration, Chavez has vowed to fight U.S. imperialism. He has repeatedly accused Washington of trying to undermine his authority at home. He blames the White House for orchestrating a coup attempt against him in 2002, an accusation Bush officials have denied.
Chavez has called upon regional neighbors such as Nicaragua and Ecuador -- countries whose leftist leaders are staunch allies of Chavez -- to form a military alliance against the United States. Both countries have so far rejected the notion of a united military front.
But Chavez promised that Ecuador "can count on Venezuela for whatever it needs, in any situation," saying although he didn't want war, he would not allow "the Empire" meaning the United States or "its lap dog" Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "try to make us weaker."
Diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been fragile since Colombia accused Chavez in 1999 of being sympathetic to FARC and providing haven to guerrillas in Venezuela. Chavez accused Uribe of conspiring with the U.S. to remove him from power.
The United States, which has been backing Colombia in its decades-long fight against leftist guerrillas, said it was monitoring the situation in South America.
During his visit to Colombia in January, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised concerns about Venezuela’s arms purchases.
"To the degree these capabilities come into the theater," Mullen said, "they are a great concern — not just to Colombia, which has been expressed, but to the region, and in fact very much to the United States."
The United States has succeeded in thwarting at least one effort by Venezuela to buy arms abroad.
A proposed deal with Spain to buy F-16 fighter jets and several naval ships was “effectively vetoed by United States,” said Joyce. The United States prohibited Spain from selling the fighter jets and naval vessels to Venezuela because they contained U.S. parts and technologies.
“There is very little prospect of Spain sending any military equipment to Venezuela in the near future,” Joyce said.
Venezuelan officials in Washington declined to discuss Mullen’s remarks or Venezuela’s recent arms purchases.
But in an interview with the Washington Times last year, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez said that his country was preparing for any "asymmetrical conflict" with the United States, and that Venezuela’s arms acquisitions were being carried out in compliance with all international and regional nonproliferation treaties.
"We have simply been trying to upgrade our military equipment and maintain our defense while preserving balance in the hemisphere," said Alvarez.