- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pressed Spain yesterday to declare whether it plans to go ahead with a sale of military planes and patrol boats, despite objections from the United States.

“We are going to say to the Spanish that they [must] tell us once and for all if they can sell, because if not, we are going to buy in Russia, in China, in Iran or in India or in Brazil,” Mr. Chavez said during a televised conversation with a Venezuelan defense official.

Washington’s top diplomat for Latin America, Tom Shannon, was in Madrid for talks yesterday, but wire agencies said it was not clear whether he brought up the proposed $2 billion sale of 12 military aircraft.

The United States has denied an export license for Spain to sell the transport and maritime surveillance planes, which contain American-made technology. For the same reasons, it has blocked plans by a Brazilian aerospace company to sell Caracas 36 military planes.

U.S. leaders want to keep sensitive technologies away from Mr. Chavez, who they accuse of steering an unjustified military buildup that includes plans to establish a 2.8-million-strong civilian militia.

“Why would he need all those weapons?” asked Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, during a recent visit to Buenos Aires. “That’s not going to help bring his people out of poverty.”

The Spanish deal involves a subsidiary of Spain’s European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), which is set to sell Venezuela eight military patrol boats, 10 C-295 transport planes and two CN-235 marine surveillance planes. The Brazilian deal is through Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica SA, or Embraer, and involves Super Tucano aircraft.

Both countries have the option of replacing the U.S. parts and proceeding with the sale. But experts say that would require considerable time and money and could risk diplomatic tensions with Washington.

Mr. Chavez has also accused Washington of breaking a contract to supply spare parts for F-16 fighter jets that his country acquired from the U.S. in the 1980s — an accusation that Washington denies.

A senior State Department official told The Washington Times that the F-16 program was central to Venezuela-U.S. relations and that the United States “was not going to walk away from it.”

In October, under U.S. pressure, Israel rejected a request by Venezuela to upgrade the F-16s.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez is repeating threats to seek military equipment from Russia and China. In recent weeks, Venezuelan press reports, citing unnamed military sources, have reported that Moscow and Caracas are opening a dialogue on a possible sale of MiG-29 jet fighters.

Col. Vyacheslav Sedov of the Russian Defense Ministry said on Jan. 11 that Russian defense officials had made no statement suggesting that Russia is ready to sell MiG-29 jet fighters, according to the Interfax news agency.

“The Defense Ministry is not responsible for concluding contracts for the delivery of weapons or military hardware abroad; rather, it is a matter for the state-owned company Rosoboronexport,” Col. Sedov said.

The State Department official declined to comment when asked whether the United States was pressuring Russia not to go through with such a sale.

Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said he thinks Russia is discussing sales of MiGs and other hardware to Venezuela, which is “flush with oil cash.”

“Russia is aggressively pursuing weapons markets,” Mr. Cohen said. “President Vladimir Putin is personally involved in pushing arms-export sales as the revenues boost Russian military [research and development] and production. It is a top national priority for the Kremlin.”

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