LIMA, Peru – The Air Force general responsible for U.S. military operations in most of Latin America said Tuesday that he does not believe Venezuela, despite ongoing arms purchases and close ties to Iran, poses a national security threat to the United States.
Gen. Douglas Fraser also said he would like to see more counterdrug cooperation from Venezuela, from which most northbound cocaine smuggling flights continue to originate, according to U.S. and Colombian officials.
Fraser was asked if he thought Venezuela's newly announced development of unmanned aerial vehicles and continued purchase of billions of dollars' worth of weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and other nations, did not present a danger to his country.
"From my standpoint, no, I don't see it that way," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I don't see them as a national security threat."
Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said from his headquarters in Miami that he views the anti-aircraft missile purchases in particular as primarily defensive in nature.
He also said he did not consider Iran's ties with Chavez's socialist government to amount to a military alliance.
"As I look at Iran and their connection with Venezuela, I see that still primarily as a diplomatic and economic relationship," he said, with Iran using it to counter international sanctions over its alleged development of offensive nuclear weapons.
Fraser's comments echo a July 11 statement by U.S. President Barack Obama that drew criticism from his presumed Republican challenger in November elections, Mitt Romney.
Obama said his "overall sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the past several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."
Romney responded by saying it was "simply naive" to think Chavez does not pose a threat to the United States.
Chavez, who is himself up for re-election on Oct. 7, denies his government Venezuela poses any threat to the United States, the chief purchaser of Venezuelan oil.
The United States is also the No. 1 cocaine-consuming nation. U.S. officials say most northbound cocaine, produced in the Andes, is smuggled by sea but the vast majority of U.S.-bound cocaine smuggled by air in recent years has originated in southwestern Venezuela and lands primarily in Honduras before continuing north.
The U.S. Treasury Department alleges several current and retired senior Venezuelan military officials including Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva have enriched themselves through drug trafficking in collusion with leftist Colombian rebels, and Fraser said he has seen nothing to indicate that has changed.
He said, however, that interdiction efforts outside Venezuela have reduced the number of northbound drug flights by 40 percent in the first six months of this year as compared to the first half of 2011.
"We have also seen a decrease in the Caribbean maritime (smuggling) traffic of 40 percent," he said, crediting Colombian monitoring of Venezuelan airspace.
However, a similar decrease has not been noted in the Pacific, where cocaine is smuggled in everything from semisubmersibles to fishing trawlers, speedboats and freighters.
Fraser said he is retiring in the fall. He is to be succeeded by Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, currently senior military adviser to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.