Thursday, July 27, 2006

In May, the State Department placed Venezuela on a list of countries that were not fully cooperating with U.S. efforts against terrorism, banning all arms sales to President Hugo Chavez’s regime. Mr. Chavez was in Russia this week to work out an agreement for a large arms purchase, and in turn to flout the arms embargo against his country. Included in the $3 billion deal with Russia are 24 fighter jets, 30 military helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles, according to reports. The U.S. arms embargo prevents Venezuela from importing parts needed to maintain its U.S.-made fighter jets, rendering Venezuela’s F-16s inoperable. The deal doesn’t threaten the United States militarily, but it may have a negative impact on the region, particularly since, as the State Department has observed, the weapons exceed Venezuela’s defensive needs.

The deal also underscores the status of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Although it may be worth noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin felt compelled to claim that the deal “was not directed against third countries,” his willingness to disregard Washington’s request — that he not agree to the arms deal — should only serve to remind Washington of Russia’s increasingly self-assertive foreign policy.

Signing a large arms deal with Russia is only one of Mr. Chavez’s primary objectives during this trip. He is also interested in creating an anti-American network with himself as the nexus. The self-proclaimed American nemesis has spread his country’s oil money throughout South America in an effort to fund such an alliance, and to date he has only managed to rope in Evo Morales in Bolivia and Fidel Castro in Cuba, both ideological brethren of the Venezuelan president. With regard to one of Venezuela’s alliances, Washington can be fairly circumspect: That Mr. Chavez made a new friend in Alexander Lukashenko means only that the isolated Belarussian dictator may now count his friends with two fingers instead of one.

Mr. Chavez’s relationship with Tehran, which he will also visit during his travels, is more threatening. The two regimes have previously discussed joint military exercises. Mr. Chavez has been vocal in his support of the Iranian nuclear program, and the two countries have reached several agreements, including one that would allow Iran access to known Venezuelan uranium deposits.

The majority of Mr. Chavez’s antics are innocuous. For as much as the populist president lambastes America, his regional influence, as well as domestic power, ultimately derives from oil, and the United States is Venezuela’s largest export market. Washington is right not to let him become the focus of policy in South America, but the worrisome nature of his dealings requires continued scrutiny.

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