Baduel: Venezuela Buildup Isn't a Threat

The Associated Press
Monday, October 2, 2006; 4:10 PM

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Venezuela's defense minister said Monday his country's military buildup isn't a threat to the region as he joined Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and counterparts from across the Americas in discussing possible joint humanitarian missions.

Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel said Venezuela's recent military spending spree wasn't "an arms race," despite Washington's protests.

"All our acquisitions are strictly for defense," said Baduel as a meeting of Western Hemisphere defense ministers opened. "In no way is our country adopting an attitude of defense against any fellow country."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly accused the United States of planning to invade his country, a claim American officials dismiss as preposterous.

The Venezuelan leader recently used booming oil profits to close deals with Russia worth roughly $3 billion. Arms purchases include 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 24 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and 53 military helicopters.

Venezuela is also obtaining a license for the first Kalashnikov rifle factory in Latin America.

Venezuela's defense spending is still dwarfed by that of the U.S., which is to reach roughly $500 billion this year, including war costs for Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May, Washington banned arms sales to Venezuela, saying Chavez has not done enough to counter terrorism.

Chavez referred to President Bush as "the devil" in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly and denounced U.S. efforts to block Venezuela's bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Rumsfeld said Sunday he did not expect to meet privately with the Venezuelan defense minister, although he will see him during the regular meetings.

Baduel told The Associated Press he had a "cordial exchange" with Rumsfeld Sunday night and offered him a cigar.

"I have spoken to Mr. Rumsfeld to convince him that he should try smoking Venezuela's good tobacco," Baduel said. "He said he doesn't smoke, that his wife wouldn't let him."

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