- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela is buying helicopters, boats and military transport planes in defense deals worth $2.7 billion to modernize its military as tension grows between leftist President Hugo Chavez and the United States.

Flush with oil profits but blocked from buying U.S. arms, Mr. Chavez is increasingly looking to countries like Russia and Spain as suppliers.

A cargo ship carrying 30,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles is headed to Venezuela, with the first shipment of an order totaling 100,000 guns to arrive by year’s end. The military is seeking to buy more submarines, and Mr. Chavez is planning an even bigger deal for Russian fighter jets.

“The United States is failing in its attempt to blockade us, to disarm us,” Mr. Chavez said after announcing the first shipment of assault rifles.

Washington has pointed to the mounting defense deals with concern and urged Russia and Spain not to do business with Venezuela. Both countries have shrugged off the warnings.

Venezuela’s defense budget is up 31 percent this year, to $2 billion, and that doesn’t include the roughly $2.2 billion it plans to spend for 10 transport planes and eight patrol boats on what will be Spain’s largest defense deal.

Mr. Chavez said the spending is necessary to keep the military up to date and to obtain “minimal arms for the defense of our seas, land and airspace.”

Defense economist Mark Stoker says the deals so far don’t appear to be a significant buildup; Venezuela is not spending as much as Brazil and Colombia.

“My interpretation is that Venezuela had a certain amount of aging military equipment and needed to replace some of that” using its windfall oil profits, said Mr. Stoker of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Chavez is looking to buy Russian Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets to replace the F-16s and said he plans to discuss the deal in an upcoming trip to Moscow. Venezuela also is buying 15 Russian helicopters for $200 million, and officials say they hope to buy 18 more.

Some critics complain the defense money could be better spent on fighting crime.

“Where are the government’s priorities?” presidential candidate Julio Borges asked. “What the government invests in the military is much larger than what it invests in security in the entire country.”


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