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Venezuela's strongman splurges on Russian weapons

Thursday, April 8, 2010; A20

RUSSIAN PRIME Minister Vladimir Putin boasted after returning from a visit to Venezuela on Monday that he had sold President Hugo Chávez another $5 billion in weapons -- a huge sum for a Latin American country that is deep in recession and busy rationing its water, electricity and hard currency. Take it as one more sign of the political, economic and human rights meltdown underway in a major U.S. oil supplier -- and where it may lead.

The last time we looked in on developments in Venezuela, in January, we pointed out that Mr. Chávez had reacted to the unraveling of his economy and his shrinking popularity by stepping up repression of the opposition. That continues: In the past couple of weeks, the government arrested and brought criminal charges against three more leading critics. One is a former state governor and presidential candidate who said in an interview that Venezuela has become a haven for drug traffickers and terrorists. A second is the owner of the last television network that dares to criticize Mr. Chávez; the third is a deputy in the National Assembly who had denounced corruption.

Mr. Chávez's move against former governor Oswaldo Álvarez Paz came after a Spanish judge issued an indictment accusing the government and armed forces of facilitating contacts between Colombia's left-wing FARC terrorists and those of the Basque group ETA, who were allegedly concocting plots to assassinate the Colombian president and other leading politicians. Mr. Paz's "crime" was to talk about this development. The Spanish dossier is one of several demonstrating material support for terrorism by Mr. Chávez, who has made little secret of his preference for the FARC over Colombia's democratic government.

That brings us to the latest round of arms purchases from Russia, which come on top of $4 billion in weapons that Mr. Chávez already ordered from Moscow. The arsenal includes T-72 tanks, Mi-17 helicopters and advanced fighter jets -- weapons suitable for the conventional war with which Mr. Chávez has repeatedly threatened Colombia.

The Obama administration's response has been to soft-pedal most of this. Political arrests are met with perfunctory-sounding statements of concern. About the flood of Russian weapons, aimed at intimidating one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, the State Department spokesman observed that "we're hard-pressed to see what legitimate defense needs Venezuela has for this equipment . . . we can probably think of better things that could be invested on behalf of the Venezuelan people." Colombians -- and average Venezuelans -- can only hope such nonchalance is justified.

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