- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on a world tour during which he signed a $3 billion arms deal with Russia, has begun talking about combining several of South America’s largest armies to counter U.S. influence.

“We must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization,” Mr. Chavez said July 5 in Caracas during a military parade, which Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and Bolivian President Evo Morales attended.

In another speech before he left for Moscow last week, Mr. Chavez said: “We must form the armed forces of Mercosur, merging warfare capabilities of the continent.”

Mercosur is a South American trading group to which Venezuela was admitted last month. The group’s other members are Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are associate members.

Mr. Chavez elaborated on the rationale for a combined military during a visit to Bolivia in May on which he was accompanied by Venezuela’s army chief, Gen. Raul Baduel.

The need is for a Latin American alliance “equivalent to NATO, with our own doctrine, not one that’s handed down by the gringos,” he said in a TV broadcast at the Inca shrine of Lake Titicaca.

Mr. Chavez called the United States the “greatest threat” to the world when he announced the purchase of 24 Su-30 Sukhoi fighter jets and 53 Mi-17, Mi-26 and Mi-35 combat helicopters from Russia last week. The long-term deal provides for a total of $3 billion worth of arms for Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez also is purchasing more than 100,000 AK-103 automatic rifles from Russia and working to develop an indigenous arms industry.

He has announced plans to set up a munitions factory in the city of Maracay to produce upgraded versions of Russian assault rifles and light anti-tank weapons and hopes to assemble Russian military aircraft in Venezuela.

According to confidential defense documents obtained from military sources of another country, the Venezuelan air force approached the Russian Defense Ministry three years ago about setting up a “maintenance center” for advanced fighter aircraft.

“Future deliveries will be made with the participation of specialists of the Venezuelan air force in the joint assembly of the planes and their test flights following their assembly on Venezuelan territory,” states a 2003 letter to Russian Aeronautic Corp. President Nikolai Nikitin, signed by Gen. Regulo Anselini, the Venezuelan air force chief.

Sukhoi and more advanced MiG aircraft have been flown to Venezuela’s Libertador air base and have made demonstration flights over the southern Caribbean.

U.S. military sales to Venezuela are banned, and the State Department last week asked Russia to review its arms deals with Mr. Chavez, but Moscow refused. “The cooperation between Venezuela and Russia is not directed against anybody,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

Argentine military analyst and former security official Mario Baizan said he thinks a certain level of military coordination is already being established between Venezuela and other South American countries. Venezuela “is trying to promote a doctrine of asymmetrical warfare to resist intervention by outside powers,” he said.

Mercosur officials have publicly rejected the idea of turning their common market into a military alliance, and Brazilian army chiefs have voiced opposition to Mr. Chavez’s plans.

Venezuelan proposals have been similarly rebuffed by Chile, which has undertaken its own arms buildup, purchasing U.S. F-16 combat aircraft and missile frigates from Britain and the Netherlands.

But others are receptive. After Mr. Kirchner’s July visit to Caracas, Argentina established a bilateral military commission with Venezuela.

Venezuelan generals met with Bolivia’s high command last month to propose a “merger” of their armed forces, according to military officials in La Paz who say the Bolivian chief of staff, Gen. Freddy Bersatti, backs the idea.

Mr. Chavez has provided the Bolivian air force with T-34 jet trainers as well as two Super Puma helicopters. Mr. Chavez says he is sending Bolivia weapons to replace equipment, which the United States is confiscating over differences in anti-drug and counterterrorism policies.

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