Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Bush administration has lodged a formal protest with Russia for agreeing to provide the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more than 100,000 AK-47 rifles that U.S. officials believe could be used to aid left-wing uprisings in Latin America.

The administration in December sent a secret letter of protest (formally called a demarche) to the Russian Embassy in Washington, according to senior U.S. officials. The officials say the warning was followed up by concerns expressed directly to the Russian defense and foreign ministers.

The protests come at a time when U.S. intelligence reports say that Mr. Chavez is working behind the scenes to prop up left-wing revolutionary movements in the region while retrenching from democratic principles at home.

Mr. Chavez is a vocal supporter of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries, and has encouraged the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. intelligence estimates there are now 15,000 Cuban officials in Venezuela. Caracas claims they are there as part of cultural and professional exchanges, but U.S. officials say they are communist advisers.

Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., denied yesterday his country plans to ship weapons for rebel uprisings.

“This is outrageous,” Mr. Alvarez said. “How do you think we can do that? Venezuela is a respectable country. We have never participated in arms traffic at all.”

He said Venezuela is buying the rifles “because of defensive purposes for the country.”

“We support a peaceful and democratic revolution,” Mr. Alvarez said. “We cannot be encouraging any other situation that is not democratic and peaceful.”

Washington, however, is wary of Mr. Chavez, who calls the United States an imperialistic power that has to be confronted.

A State Department official issued a statement to The Washington Times that said, “Venezuela’s plans to purchase various types and large quantities of weapons are extremely troubling. And we believe that Venezuela should consult with its neighbors on such armament acquisitions. The purchase has raised questions as to their ultimate purposes. Our concern about these weapons purchases are heightened by Venezuela’s tolerance for groups such as FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and ELN [National Liberation Army] and others.”

The FARC and ELN are terrorists groups in neighboring Colombia.

Another U.S. fear on the AK-47 sale is that the weapons they replace within the military will be exported to left-wing rebel movements.

The State Department official declined to say whether the Bush administration had sent Russia a formal protest.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out Venezuela for criticism at her Jan. 18 Senate confirmation hearing.

“We have a long and good history with Venezuela, long ties,” she said. “I think it’s extremely unfortunate that the Chavez government has not been constructive. And we do have to be vigilant and to demonstrate that we know the difficulties that that government is causing for its neighbors, its close association with Fidel Castro in Cuba.”

U.S. officials said intelligence reports show that Mr. Chavez’s government secretly funneled money to Nicaragua last year to aid mayoral candidates of the Marxist Sandinistas, led by former President Daniel Ortega.

At home, Mr. Chavez is planning to start forming militias outside the professional armed forces, U.S. officials say.

The sources say they fear the Russian-provided AK-47s will be used to arm what may become little more than street gangs assigned the task of enforcing loyalty to Mr. Chavez.

“He’s consolidating a dictatorship,” said a senior U.S. official. “It’s a Cuban-style dictatorship. He’s arming loyalists and setting them lose to intimidate people at the city block level.”

Mr. Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador, said what Washington officials are calling militias are actually new army reserve units.

“It will be under the control of the military,” he said.

The new units are not Washington’s only worry. Mr. Chavez’s rhetoric is increasingly anti-U.S. and pro-revolution. He has further nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry and restricted press freedom.

Mr. Chavez is also planning to build an ammunition factory. Again, the U.S. fear is that the ammunition will find its way to leftist revolutionaries.

The arms deal with Russia does not call only for AK-47s. Russia will also supply MiG-29 fighters and attack helicopters. Additionally, U.S. intelligence believes the AK-47 buy may eventually reach 300,000 rifles.

Beyond diplomacy, however, there are not many options for Washington. Mr. Chavez is democratically elected. And his country’s huge oil reserves make it the No. 4 provider to the United States.

“Chavez has shut off a lot of our options. We’re very susceptible to a shut off of oil by Chavez,” the U.S. official said.

Mr. Chavez has talked of establishing an Al Jazeera-style news network in Venezuela that would reach all of Latin American. Some Pentagon officials considers the Qatar-based Arab-language channel a propaganda arm of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

But Mr. Chavez appeared on Al Jazeera in December and called the station “a symbol of courage, principles and dignity.” He added, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.: “It always tells the truth.” He expressed support for the Iraqi insurgents attacking American forces.

Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998 on a theme of a “Bolivarian Revolution” — a message of Marxism and populism aimed at the poor. He survived a coup in 2002 and beat back a recall election last August with 57 percent of the vote.

Mr. Chavez traveled to Tripoli, Libya, last November to receive a humanitarian award from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who has renounced terrorism and given up his weapons of mass destruction.

“Latin America has started witnessing greater interest and involvement in popular and revolutionary movements,” Mr. Chavez said, according to the Associated Press.

Among the dignitaries in the audience was Sandinista leader Mr. Ortega, the former Nicaraguan president who seeks to rule Nicaragua again.

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