Colombia and Venezuela: No Concern Over Weapons Purchases

Colombia plans to spend 540 million dollars to modernise and strengthen its air force, a decision that does not at all worry its neighbour, Venezuela.

CARACAS, Venezuela, March 16 (IPS) – Colombia plans to spend 540 million dollars to modernise and strengthen its air force, a decision that does not at all worry its neighbour, Venezuela, to judge by formal statements by the administration of Hugo Chávez.

In an announcement to 21 interested companies, Colombian Defence Minister Jorge Uribe said his government would purchase 22 combat and tactical support planes to replace its fleets of U.S.-made OV-10 Broncos and A-37 Dragonflies, at a cost of 234 million dollars.

The replacements could be Brazilian Super Tucanos, U.S.-made T-6’s or Pilatus PC-9’s from Switzerland, according to press reports from Bogota.

Another 306 million dollars will go towards upgrading other air force squadrons “with aircraft equipped with the latest technology…to enable effective support for land troops and interdiction operations to reduce the destabilising capacity of the illegal groups,” said Minister Uribe.

For more than 20 years, the Colombian air force has had fleets of French Mirage and Kfir Israeli fighter jets, while both the air force and the army have dozens of U.S.-made UH-60 (Blackhawk) and Bell helicopters.

In neighbouring Venezuela, army commander General Raúl Baduel said Wednesday that “Colombia has the sovereign right to take actions for its security, to build up its war material to defend the nation’s interests.”

Baduel added that “the situation in Colombia, which has been caught up in over 50 years of violence, pains us, but that is a problem that must be resolved by Colombians themselves, a people with whom we are linked by indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.”

The general did note, however, that the army was studying four hypothetical scenarios in which Venezuela is involved in an armed conflict, one of which is “the regional conflict, which could take shape as an extension of conflicts in neighbouring countries, and used as a casus belli (justification) for extending that crisis to our country.”

Venezuela also recently decided to upgrade its armed forces, at a total cost of two billion dollars. Purchases in the pipeline include 44 helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles from Russia, C-295 transport planes and four corvettes (for coastal patrols) from Spain, a fleet of Super Tucanos, and possibly, according to the press, Russian Mig-29’s.

President Hugo Chávez and his defence minister, General Jorge García, explained that the helicopters and other weapons systems would be deployed to guard the western border, to prevent incursions of irregular armed groups — whether guerrillas, paramilitaries, or drug traffickers — from Colombia.

In February, Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco said Venezuela’s arms purchases ”respond to Venezuela’s internal needs.” Other spokespersons for the Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe (no relation to the defence minister) also stated clearly that they saw no signs of an arms race.

The hypothetical situation of an armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela has been studied for decades in military academies in both countries.

The two nations came close to the brink of war in 1987, when a Colombian warship anchored for 10 days in disputed waters in the Gulf of Venezuela.

Arms purchases on either side of the border have periodically been prompted by border disputes or acquisitions by the neighbouring country, with each country seeking to get ahead or to re-establish the balance.

Traditionally, Venezuela has enjoyed air and naval superiority, while Colombia’s army is larger and highly experienced after half a century of war with leftist insurgents.

Colombia’s armed forces are 200,000 strong, while Venezuela’s are made up of 80,000 troops.

The basis of Venezuela’s dissuasive power are Mirage and U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes, 80 French-made AMX-30 tanks, artillery purchased from Israel and six Italian-made Lupo frigates, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

When Washington began to criticise the Venezuelan government’s plans for arms purchases, Chávez complained that the United States did not sell parts for F-16’s, and said the U.S. government was probably annoyed because Venezuela was buying weapons from other countries instead of the United States.

Retired general Alberto Müller told IPS last month that ”it would be ridiculous for the world’s major powers, which spend such enormous sums on defence, to describe as an ‘arms race’ the purchase of 100,000 rifles or 40 helicopters for a country that, like Venezuela, has a difficult border of over 2,200 kms to guard on its western frontier alone.”

He also noted that ”Venezuela, like Peru, has always diversified its sources of weapon systems, which means we have U.S., French and Brazilian planes, Italian frigates, German submarines, Belgian rifles, U.S. helicopters, French tanks and Israeli artillery pieces.”

Political scientist Alberto Garrido commented in an interview with IPS that ”Chávez’s aim is to move away from dependence on the United States” while acquiring equipment that would put it on an equal footing, in tactical terms, with civil war-torn Colombia.

Besides its air force equipment, Colombia has four Italian frigates equipped with French-made Exocet missiles, two submarines, Brazilian armoured vehicles and artillery.

Colombia’s ”more than 150 helicopters could give it an edge, because the way to annul a tank is with a helicopter,” said Müller.

Army chief Baduel remarked: ”Don’t the U.S. plans for military aid to our neighbouring countries, specifically Colombia, create a significant imbalance in the relative combat power of the two countries?”

Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Egypt and Israel.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s Chávez are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Colombia’s right-wing leader is Washington’s closest ally in the region while the left-leaning Chávez is a good friend of socialist Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

In January, a diplomatic crisis broke out after a Colombian guerrilla leader who was living in Caracas, Rodrigo Granda, was kidnapped in the Venezuelan capital and taken across the border to Colombia. But the two presidents met shortly afterwards to patch things up.

When Venezuela’s purchase of 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles was announced, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega expressed concern that some of the weapons could ”fall into the hands of criminal or irregular groups that operate in Latin America” — an allusion to Colombia’s insurgents.

And although Chávez and Uribe are on good terms, General Bantz Craddock, the chief of the U.S. army’s Southern Command, said Tuesday that Venezuela’s purchase of Russian rifles and helicopters is ”unsettling”, and that Venezuela’s neighbours are also concerned.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also recently described the Venezuelan leader as a ”negative force” in Latin America, and similar statements have come from other officials in the White House and the departments of state and defence.

But Venezuelan Vice-President José Vicente Rangel retorted that ”I challenge them to find the concern of Venezuela’s neighbours. Let them look for a worried statement from the governments of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Guyana or our Caribbean neighbours, and they will not find any. Only the United States is worried.”

Roger Pardo-Maurer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of Defence, said Monday that ”Chávez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries.”

The response came from Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s foreign policy adviser, Marco Aurelio García, who said the accusation was ”sheer nonsense, obviously from some poorly informed official.”

Source: IPS News