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Hugo Chavez, soldiers to his left and right
Chavez spends more money on the militaryImage: AP

Chavez beefs up defences

September 17, 2009

The Venezuelan president's revolution is under pressure from within and without: A renewed US presence is cause for concern while at home oil revenues are dwindling. Now he's looking for new alliances - and weapons.


Hugo Chavez' recent whistle-stop tour around the world has left Western governments guessing exactly what agenda the Venezuelan president is pursuing. There are a few things that all the destinations in his itinerary have in common: they are potential partners for new oil and gas alliances, and they do not get on too well with Washington. But the similarities stop here.

Moving tank
Chavez ordered more than 90 tanks from RussiaImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Last week's talks with the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev presented a culmination of Chavez' latest bid to strengthen new alliances. In Moscow he signed deals for Russian tanks and missiles worth $2.2 billion and loosely agreed on nuclear cooperation.

For his plan to build a "nuclear village" Venezuela's president also enlisted the support of Iran, which he had visited days earlier. Iran in turn provided Chavez' with a good platform for his anti-American rhetoric. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chavez pledged to back revolutionary nations and form anti-imperialist fronts, the official IRNA news agency reported. That theme had already surfaced earlier on Chavez' first stop-over when he joined Libya's controversial "revolutionary" leader Moammar Gadhafi in celebrating his 40th year in power.

Military spending spree causes worries

Chavez and Uribe embrace
Rare picture: Venezuelas Chavez (l.) and Colombia's President Uribe are not the best of friendsImage: AP

But it is the Venezuelan president's military spending spree that has prompted the most immediate responses from the country's neighbors in Latin America and the US. On Wednesday Mexico warned of a new arms build up in Latin America. Earlier this week the US had criticized Venezuela for setting off a new arms race.

After years of Latin American military budgets broadly in decline, it is true that the trend has reversed. But just who is to blame for driving the new arms build up is far less clear, said Andreas Boeckh, who is Professor of Latin American Politics at Tübingen University. "Colombia's decision to let its US-allies open up new bases on its territory has rekindled old fears of military domination across the continent not just in Venezuela," he said, adding that in Venezuela's case the country's long-running confrontation with Colombia explains Chavez' particularly strong opposition.

More transparency needed

Soldiers pile up white bags
Soldiers destroy drugs. The US maintains it's the main reason for supporting ColombiaImage: AP

On Tuesday the 12 members of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) met in a bid to defuse the tensions raised by Washington's expanded military presence in the region. The meeting also discussed the Venezuelan arms deal with Russia but ended in deadlock.

Colombia, which has received nearly six billion dollars in mostly military aid from the United States over the last ten years, has rejected demands that it give its neighbors legally binding guarantees that the US military will not operate outside Colombian territory. Several nations, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina questioned Washington's motives, saying the US military deployment would be suspiciously large for the stated purpose of fighting Colombian drug traffickers and rebels.

More than backtracking on individual decisions, "the one thing that is urgently necessary is to be open about them," said Carina Solmirano, an expert on Latin American security policy at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Colombia as well as Venezuela need to be transparent about the dealings they have with the US and Russia respectively, she said, adding that this also holds true for the US. But there may be another problem. There is a lack of real dialogue, "Venezuela interprets Colombia's actions the way it wants and Colombia does likewise." The misunderstandings, in other words, are deliberate.

Domestic problems at the core

Men in green uniforms wearing face masks
These FARC rebels have surrendered but their group fights onImage: AP

That is because domestic problems are driving the confrontation, too. Colombia's center-right president Alvaro Uribe accuses Venezuela of supporting the left-wing FARC rebels in Colombia, which continue to fight his government. At home Chavez is also facing political problems, said Tübingen University's Andreas Boeckh. "Chavez' state apparatus has proved incapable of implementing or running his socialist project."

Declining oil revenues have also put the brakes on the Bolivarian revolution. Oil exports account for half of the Venezuelan government's income, reports the Council on Foreign Relations. But world market oil prices have dropped by half since reaching a historic peak in summer 2008.

Oil facility
Lower oil prices have reduced the government's incomeImage: AP

When domestic trouble looms, targeting external enemies is a common way of trying to drum up support at home, explains Boeckh. From Caracas' vantage, "Colombia's decision to host the US military came just at the right time."

But in the long term the Venezuelan president may eye greater control over the oil price itself in order to shore up his revolution. Despite being the fifth-largest oil exporter in the world, his government has found it difficult to influence the oil price, which in no small part is determined by political decisions taken by OPEC. Chavez' attempts to forge new oil and gas alliances, if successful, could present OPEC with a serious challenge.

Author: Ranty Islam
Editor: Rob Mudge

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