- - Monday, January 21, 2019

Russia, China and Cuba are not the only ones propping up the leftist regime of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

Spain, a NATO ally of the U.S. and important member of the European Union, has been selling military equipment to Caracas despite an EU arms embargo.

Much of the international community, including 14 Latin American governments, joined the Trump administration in condemning Mr. Maduro’s inauguration for a second six-year term this month after calling his easy election win fraudulent.

Spain’s response was muted. Analysts said Madrid’s reaction reflected a web of historical, commercial and political ties that it maintains with the rogue regime.

Spain’s refusal to break with Caracas has been tested by the deteriorating situation inside Venezuela.

On Monday alone, Mr. Maduro’s security forces quelled what they said was a potential coup by disgruntled national guardsmen while the regime-supporting Supreme Court invalidated a string of recent votes by the opposition-dominated National Assembly that declared Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.

In the latest of a string of arms deals, Spain is providing $23 million in parts and technical assistance to upgrade Venezuela’s French-made AMX-30 tanks. Critics of the deal warn that the tanks could be used for internal repression or against neighboring Colombia, which has accused the Maduro government of harboring Colombian terrorist groups fighting the government in Bogota.

EU officials say the sales don’t violate sanctions because the contract with Venezuela was signed before the arms embargo took effect at the end of 2017. Even so, the Spanish government could have frozen the military technology transfer, as was done in other cases in which security and political considerations warranted.

An interagency review board that clears foreign arms deals, known by the acronym JIMDDU, recently vetoed the export of artillery pieces to Israel because they could be used to shell Lebanon and blocked a sale of parachutes to Iran.

But JIMDDU gave its approval for the Venezuelan tank upgrade a year ago, even after Mr. Maduro suspended the national parliament, detained thousands of opponents and sparked a massive exodus of refugees that has destabilized neighboring countries.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist who has taken an active role in trying to mediate clashes between the Maduro government and its domestic opponents, sold eight navy frigates to Venezuela in what was at the time Spain’s largest arms deal, when Mr. Maduro’s mentor, anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez, was awash in oil money.

One of the frigates was deployed recently to assert Venezuelan claims to waters off Guyana’s coast by chasing a Norwegian oil exploration vessel working for Exxon Mobil out of the area.

Spanish Conservatives say it’s time for the center-left government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who took office in June and relies on the support of far-left parties to stay in power, to end the embarrassing and politically problematic relationship with Caracas.

“It’s time to stop Spain’s arms sales to Venezuela,” Sen. Dionisio Garcia of the opposition conservative People’s Party told The Washington Times. He introduced a congressional resolution last week calling on Mr. Sanchez to join the U.S. and other Western governments in shunning the Maduro government.

Chavez and Castro

Critics say Mr. Sanchez is reversing the policies of previous governments that cooperated with U.S. efforts to isolate Venezuela.

Mariano Rajoy, as a conservative prime minister, pushed for European sanctions against Venezuela. In contrast, Spain recently interceded in the EU foreign affairs council to block wider sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations and other crimes.

The far-right Vox party even accuses Mr. Sanchez of promoting “Castro-Chavismo,” a reference to an alleged alliance between Cuba and Venezuela to spread leftist authoritarianism on the model of Chavez and late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Foreign Ministry officials say there is a bipartisan policy to safeguard substantial Spanish interests in Venezuela, a former colony with close historical and cultural ties to Spain. They point out that the tank modernization deal got the go-ahead while Mr. Rajoy was in office, and many Venezuelans of Spanish parentage hold Spanish passports.

The Spanish oil company Repsol is virtually the only Western energy giant remaining in Venezuela, navigating the nationalization policies that drove out other international players. Its investment in offshore drilling operations in Venezuela was valued at $2 billion in 2017, though a company spokesman said Venezuela has paid down some of that investment.

Repsol has also maintained important operations in Bolivia, following that government’s expropriations in the energy sector, and undertaken exploration in Cuba.

Conservative leaders say Spain’s Venezuela-friendly approach has also been boosted by the far-left Podemos party and separatist groups in Catalonia, whose parliamentary support is critical for the prime minister’s hopes to put off new elections.

Podemos has been the target of a congressional investigation into financial donations that the group allegedly took from Venezuela through a foundation formed by its treasurer.

Appearing before a Senate investigative hearing last month, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias denied the accusations and described the situation in Venezuela as bad. But days earlier, a Podemos spokesman said Venezuela had made “great strides” in economic development under Mr. Maduro.

Venezuelan opposition leaders have charged that Mr. Zapatero, the former prime minister, used his position as an international mediator to pressure them to accept conditions for participating in last year’s elections, which were widely seen only as a means to legitimize Mr. Maduro’s victory.

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who fled to exile in Spain last year, has called Mr. Zapatero an agent of Mr. Maduro.

In an interview with El Pais last month, Mr. Zapatero pressed Mr. Maduro to embrace economic reforms but also argued that there was widespread “prejudice and lack of knowledge about the situation in the country.” He also said the opposition should enter into dialogue with the government.

“The solution does not go through sanctions or implosion or pressure on the regime,” Mr. Zapatero told the newspaper. “That is total myopia.”

Foreign Ministry officials have said Mr. Zapatero acted on his own. But when he was trying to persuade the Venezuelan opposition to join talks with Mr. Maduro, a chief spokesman for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, who now holds a ministerial post, publicly called for “toning down” street protests to promote dialogue. At the time, Mr. Rajoy’s government had just suspended delivery of riot control equipment to Venezuela’s police.

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