Venezuela bolsters military against U.S.

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MIAMI — Venezuela says it is beefing up its military capabilities — including plans to develop the region’s largest submarine fleet — in preparation for any “asymmetrical conflict” with the United States.

The buildup, which also includes small arms, jet fighters and potentially air-defense missiles, is being carried out in compliance with all international and regional nonproliferation treaties, Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington said in a telephone interview.

But by repeatedly characterizing any conflict with the United States as “asymmetrical,” Bernardo Alvarez made clear that his government was contemplating the need to defend itself against the world’s lone superpower, a nation with vastly greater military resources.

“We have simply been trying to upgrade our military equipment and maintain our defense while preserving balance in the hemisphere,” said Mr. Alvarez, who insisted that Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors need not worry about the buildup.

Caracas is reported to have spent $3.4 billion on Russian arms, including assault rifles and fighter jets, and to be negotiating to buy a $290 million Russian air-defense system.

Now, according to remarks attributed to Vice Adm. Armando Laguna, Venezuela is planning to spend another $3 billion for nine submarines, giving it the region’s largest submarine fleet by 2012. Mr. Alvarez could not confirm the report.

A Pentagon report estimated that Venezuela had spent about $4.3 billion on arms since 2005 alone, more than countries such as Iran, Pakistan and even China. Venezuela also is pursuing an estimated $2 billion worth of military-transport ships and aircraft from Spain.

The Spanish deal was delayed last year after the United States objected, noting that foreign companies must seek Washington’s approval when selling U.S.-made military technology. Venezuela now is trying to work out a deal with Spain to swap out the U.S. parts in the 10 aircraft and eight vessels.

Though Venezuelan officials maintain the efforts to bolster the country’s military capabilities are essential, some consider the expenditure a waste of revenue that could be used to alleviate the strain of chronic poverty in Venezuela.

President Hugo Chavez is eager to build up his country’s defenses using a windfall of oil revenues. Having already spent a significant portion of that money on education and health programs for Venezuela’s poor, the leftist leader has set his sights on becoming the continent’s military superpower.

Venezuela could use a fleet of submarines to protect its interests in its exclusive economic zone, which in Caracas’ view includes a large portion of the Caribbean Sea.

Protecting an area that large would require far more vessels than the two German submarines — both more than 30 years old — that the Venezuelan military now employs.

The addition of nine vessels would give Venezuela the largest submarine fleet in Latin America, surpassing those of Peru, Brazil and Chile with six, five and four submarines, respectively.

The submarines will be the “diesel-electric variety,” Adm. Laguna said in a communique quoted this month by Brazil’s leading newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo, and will weigh in at approximately 1,750 metric tons apiece. The navy is considering bids from Germany, France and Russia, the odds-on favorite.

Venezuela already has conducted billions of dollars in business with Russia, purchasing 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 24 Sukhoi-30 fighters and about 35 helicopters.

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