Venezuela Spending Billions on Defense
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; 2:25 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela is buying helicopters, boats and military transport planes in defense deals worth about $2.7 billion, modernizing its military as tensions grow between leftist President Hugo Chavez and the United States.
Flush with oil profits but blocked from buying U.S. arms, Chavez is increasingly looking to countries like Russia and Spain as suppliers.
A cargo ship carrying 30,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles is headed to Venezuela with the first shipment of an order totaling 100,000 guns to arrive by year's end. The military is looking to buy more submarines, and Chavez is planning an even bigger deal for Russian fighter jets.
"The United States is failing in its attempt to blockade us, to disarm us," Chavez said after announcing the first shipment of Kalashnikovs.
Washington has pointed to the mounting defense deals with concern and urged Russia and Spain not to do business with Venezuela. Both countries have shrugged off the warnings.
Venezuela's defense budget is up 31 percent this year, to $2 billion, and that doesn't include roughly $2.2 billion it plans to spend for 10 transport planes and eight patrol boats on what will be Spain's largest-ever defense deal.
Chavez says the spending is necessary to keep the military up to date and to obtain "minimal arms for the defense of our seas, land and airspace."
Defense economist Mark Stoker says the deals so far don't appear to be a significant buildup; Venezuela is not spending as much as Brazil and Colombia.
"My interpretation is that Venezuela had a certain amount of aging military equipment and needed to replace some of that" using its windfall oil profits, said Stoker of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Chavez also is helping Bolivian President Evo Morales and has warned of a U.S. plot to oust Morales _ a claim denied by Washington.
Venezuela will send Bolivia troops and two Superpuma helicopters, Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia said Monday. He said the Venezuelan troops would do roadwork and engineering tasks, though he didn't say how many would go or give other details.
Venezuela, meanwhile, is spending $54 million for Kalashnikov AK 103 assault rifles to replace Belgian FALs, which will be turned over to a growing army reserve Chavez says would help battle U.S. troops in the event of an invasion.