- Venezuela builds up its weapon stock and deepens its ties to “pariah” nations
- Chavez’s very active regime policy intriguing some because it may be viewed as too presumptive
- Chavez plays his high-risk game with extraordinary skill
To Washington’s eye, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has become the hemisphere’s most marked “individual of concern.” However, exactly what is it about Chávez’s feisty foreign policy that has made it such a burr to U.S. national interests—symbolized by the formal takeover just hours ago of the last remaining example of foreign-control of one of the country’s oil fields.
Foreign Policy: Making Friends of Washington’s Foes
The influence of the Chávez administration around the hemisphere, if not the globe, is related to the rise of governments in the region, which accurately reflect a new genre of anti-American virulence. Chávez has managed to ally himself with a number of the continent’s leaders who share his counter-hegemonic views on regional affairs. Aside from his friendship with longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, he has befriended Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Beyond the hemisphere, Chávez has also developed close relationships with states that the U.S., at least until recently, often frowned upon, if not plotted against, such as Vietnam, Libya, Syria, Iran, the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.
Ties with Current and Former Communist States
The most recent visit of a high-level foreign dignitary to Venezuela was in late March, when Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC’s Central Committee, along with other high-ranking Chinese officers, visited Caracas. An important outcome of the meeting was the signing of an agreement between Rafael Ramirez, president of Venezuelan Petroleum Incorporated (PDVSA) and Jiang Jemin, president of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). This agreement established the Petrozumano Company, designed to transport and store hydrocarbons. The two executives also agreed on a joint venture to develop oil production in the Junin-4 bloc of Venezuela’s Orinoco Oil Belt. After the signing of these agreements, Chávez declared, “we have always said that Venezuela wants to become a reliable, growing source of oil supply for China.” He added that in 2006, Venezuela exported 300,000 barrels a day to China, with a goal of 500,000 barrels for the end of the year. The March 2007 meeting was a continuation of ongoing dialogue between both governments, which had recently reached a new peak when Chávez visited Beijing in June 2006 to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
In addition to visiting China, Chávez also has traveled to a number of other countries in order to promote closer ties. Last May, Chávez’s trip to Moscow strengthened Caracas’ links with the Russian Federation, with the subsequent purchases of major categories of Russian military equipment aimed at upgrading Venezuelan armed forces.
Growing Bonds of Friendship
Also of note was Chávez’s trip last June to Belarus. In return, in late March, a Belarusian delegation, headed by State Secretary of the National Security Council Viktor Sheyman, visited Venezuela. During Sheyman’s trip, twenty-two joint declarations were signed between the two governments regarding cooperation in the energy, trade, technology, housing construction, science and technical spheres. Another important agreement allows for a joint venture project for oil exploration and production in the Orinoco River basin. It is expected that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will travel to the South American country in the near future.
Increasingly amicable relations have also recently developed with Vietnam. Chávez has met with President Nguyen Minh Triet on two occasions within the past year, once last August when the Venezuelan leader traveled to Vietnam, and then again when both leaders attended the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Havana last September. A Venezuelan delegation, headed by deputy foreign minister Hely Vladimir Villegas, went to the Asian country in March. The most important outcome of this event, according to an article by Thai Press Reports, was that Venezuela affirmed its support for Vietnam’s bid to become a non-permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council for the 2008-2009 term. Venezuela itself may attempt once again to become a non-permanent member, and is already courting potential support from many of its new friends. Among his meetings, Villegas had appointments with officials from the Party Central Committee’s Commission for External Affairs, the Industry Ministry and the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group.
The Arab/Persian Connection
At a time when much of the world is focused on the threat of terrorism posed by Islamic fundamentalists, Chávez has approached governments that have long been accused of some form of involvement with international extremists, namely Syria, Iran and Lybia. The Venezuelan president traveled to Damascus last August, where he met with President Bashar al-Assad. Another Venezuelan delegation, headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Villegas, visited Syria in early March of this year. “My visit to Damascus comes in the framework of boosting ties and promoting them in all domains,” declared Villegas after several meetings. One interesting agreement between both countries was made known last November, when the two governments, along with Iran, signed a preliminary agreement to construct an oil refinery in Syria capable of processing 140,000 barrels a day. According to the Syrian official news agency SANA, the document was signed by Syria’s deputy oil minister Hassan Zeinab, his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Nematzadeh, and Roberto Delgado, general-director of oil refineries in Venezuela. According to Damascus, the goal of the refinery is to boost Syria’s economy and ensure the necessary oil derivatives for local consumption. The oil refinery is expected to cost $1.5 billion.
Chávez has also met with longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi when he visited Tripoli for two days in May of 2006. Officials of both governments refused to comment on what the leaders discussed, but it is known that they met for over an hour. Chávez has met Gadhafi four times prior to this event and their friendship is well known. The Libyan leader has presented Chávez with the Gadhafi Human Rights Prize, while Chávez often quotes Gadhafi’s Green Book in his speeches. It has been widely speculated that Chávez and Gadhafi, as members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), most likely discussed oil prices and supplies during their meeting.
With regards to Iran, and in order to bring the two nations together, several new initiatives have occurred during the Chávez presidency, driven by their characteristically strained relations with the U.S. An event that symbolizes the increased close ties between the two governments has been the recent designation of a Caracas-Tehran weekly flight, with a stopover in Damascus. The flights will be operated in a code-share agreement by the Venezuelan state-controlled airline Conviasa and Iran’s national carrier, Iran Air. “Mr. Chávez is much loved in our country, and our people want to come here to get to know this land,” Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela Abdullah Zifan said when plans for the flight were announced.
Discussing the close relations among Caracas, Damascus and Tehran, the Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense, on January 24 of this year published an article that explained: “Sworn enemies of the United States in the Middle East, Iran and Syria are taking advantage of the leftist wave in Latin America to launch an unprecedented diplomatic offensive. And they are finding in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela an important ally in the geopolitical energy complex.” The key component of this “defense” pact is oil, as is described in the article. Retired Venezuelan general, Boris Saavedra, a consultant on matters of hemispheric security, has been quoted as saying that Chávez has succeeded in creating “focal points of power” that oppose North American hegemony. He maintains: “This is an axis with a common ideology and an energy capacity. They have an agreement by which, in case one of those countries is attacked, militarily or not, the others will suspend the oil supply. There are 7 million barrels that would be taken off the market in one day.”
Security Policy: Arming up… for What?
Russian-Venezuelan arms deals in the last few years have made headlines worldwide. In 2006, Caracas startled the world by announcing a significant weapons purchase from Moscow: 100,000 Kalishnikov assault rifles (type AK-103), 24 Sukhoi (SU-30) fighter jets, and 53 military helicopters. The eventual price tag of the unfolding deal came close to $3 billion. The aircraft already have begun to be delivered to Venezuela, with the first two having arrived on December 8, 2006, at the Lieutenant Luis del Valle Garcia Air Base.
Another factor tying Caracas and Moscow together is the continuous flow of military personnel, such as pilots and technicians, winging in both directions to provide and receive training. Venezuelan pilots are already taking flight instruction classes from Russian teachers, while Russian technicians have traveled to Venezuela to instruct local mechanics on how to service the newly purchased and relatively sophisticated Russian equipment. Also, plans are being worked out to construct a factory capable of mass production of Russian AK automatic rifles in Maracay, Venezuela’s Aragua State. It is expected that the facility will be operational by 2010 and produce as many as 50,000 units per year.
Numerous reports indicate that Venezuela is also out to buy an indeterminate number of Antonov model 76 transport planes (which will replace the US-made C-130s), as well as three Amur-class submarines. The number of transport aircraft that Venezuela may eventually purchase has not been specified, however, sources aware of the deal’s details speak of a “large consignment.”
The most recent Venezuelan acquisitions occurred early this year when it was announced that Caracas would buy ten to twelve TOR-M1 anti-aircraft defense missile systems from Moscow. The cost of the proposed deal is estimated at $290 million. The BBC reprinted an article published by Caracas’ daily El Nacional, which quotes a retired member of Venezuela’s Presidential General Staff, General Alberto Muller Rojas, as saying: “I do not know if there will be more, but 12 is too few; in any case, there will be 12 batteries. To prevent an air attack, more missiles are needed.” Such a statement coming from someone who is known to be very close to President Hugo Chávez fortifies the likelihood of a higher volume of military purchases down the road, with Moscow appearing more than willing to oblige. In addition, Muller Rojas’ intriguing statement poses the question of exactly which outside source might attempt to carry out such a putative air assault against Venezuela.
Military technology also has come from other suppliers. In November 2005, Caracas signed a 1.2 million euro deal with Madrid for the construction of eight patrol boats for the Venezuelan navy. In mid-April, the commander of these forces, Vice-Admiral Benigno Calvo Díaz, visited the Spanish shipyards of Puerto Real and San Fernando, in Cadiz, to inspect the construction of the new vessels. A February 2007 report in the Spanish daily El País mentions that Madrid has sold the Venezuelan armed forces ammunition for light weapons, costing a total of 3.2 million Euros. Early efforts by Spain to consummate much larger military transactions with Venezuela were thwarted because Washington bans shipments containing US parts to Venezuela.
Increasingly active relations between Belarus and Venezuela also have resulted in weapon sales, but at a more modest level. The Eastern European nation will supply night vision devices to the Venezuelan army, with President Chávez declaring that “every single rifle in the Venezuelan army” will be fitted with these upgrades. A March 23 article by Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that since the Venezuelan army has around 34,000 troops, the potential value of the Venezuelan night scope order to Belarus would be between 3 and 24 million dollars. In addition, Minsk has offered Caracas an arms package that includes anti-aircraft missiles. Belarusian officials also have in their arsenals modernized Soviet-era medium and short range missile systems, called Pechora-2T and Osa-1T by the Belarusian army. The Belarusian arms firm Teteraedr, manufacturer of the Pechora and Osa missiles, also is prepared to offer Venezuela the newly-developed TRK missile system.
Finally, in 2005, Caracas acquired several 3-D long-range JYL-1 radar systems for command of military air operations from China’s state-owned Electronics Import and Export Corporation. Venezuela’s decision to turn to nations like Russia, China and Belarus for weaponry mainly has to do with its lack of other potential military suppliers. The U.S., since 2005, has suspended the sale of spare parts for Venezuela’s American-made weaponry for its F-16s. Another example is Spain’s decision to cancel a $620 million-order to Venezuela for twelve transport aircraft because of direct U.S. intervention.
His critics will argue that Chávez has committed some significant blunders regarding both foreign and security policy matters. One of these has been his comparison of Israel to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He made this statement during the summer 2006 war between the Israeli Defense Forces and the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. In an August 2006 interview with the Al-Jazeera news agency, Chávez said Israel’s air strikes against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon were an “unjustified aggression that is being carried out in the style of Hitler, in a fascist fashion.” The Venezuelan leader then removed his ambassador to Israel after the war commenced. While Chávez is known for not always having a silver tongue, he is just as famous for a lack of his self-censoring capabilities and does not always realize the effect that some of his words can have. Whatever his beliefs on Middle Eastern affairs, comparing the Israeli government to Adolf Hitler is totally inadmissible and does grave damage to his image as a thinker rather than a bomb thrower.
Another issue that has hurt Chávez’s international standing is his declared sympathy for the Colombian rebel movement, the FARC. To this end, even though Chávez has the right to acquire any quantity and grade of weapons he feels that Venezuela may requires, he well understands that such precipitous decisions like the purchase of 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and the construction of a Kalashnikov manufacturing complex in Venezuela are good grounds for causing unrest to his neighbors, particularly Colombia, where the leftist guerilla groups FARC and ELN operate. The question on everyone’s mind is: why would Venezuela need so many rifles, if it only has an armed force of around 55,000 troops (including 24,000 paramilitary troops responsible for internal security)? The fear in Washington and Bogotá is that some of those rifles may find their way into the hands of the FARC. In a press conference in Washington on March 20, Colombian foreign minister, Fernando Araújo (who was a prisoner of the FARC for six years), said that “Chávez is the ideological leader of the guerrillas in Colombia. The FARC say they have great admiration for him.” It should be noted that Chávez repeatedly has denied providing any kind of military or financial aid to the FARC or the ELN. Unfortunately, the construction of the rifle factory will only provide more firepower to his detractors.
Venezuela can formulate whatever foreign policy it wants as a sovereign state, which can include pursuing relations with renowned human right violators and despotic governments like Libya and Iran. Washington may criticize Caracas and raise serious questions of its choice of friends, but it is also important to remember that the U.S. had its share of interactions with chronic human right violators like the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Vietnam and a number of trans-Caucasian nations. In addition, Washington has taken Libya off the list of countries that sponsors terrorism, which exemplifies how the U.S. changes its mind abruptly about the status of a nation based not on objective standards, but whether it is good for U.S. interests, at times narrowly defined. From this point of view, Chávez is simply looking for potential allies who share his common interests and preferences. In the end, oil understandably has become the firmest glue between Venezuela and other countries, and that is what proves the most worrisome for Washington.
The mass purchases of military equipment by Venezuela should be seen as part of a wider modernization process now taking place across South America. Much has been written about Venezuela’s purchase of Sukhoi jet fighters and Kalashnikov rifles. However, little has been said about Chile’s purchase of F-16C fighter jets and state-of-the-art Leopard tanks and Humvees, which are of great concern to Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Caracas’ decision to approach Russia for equipment, following Chávez’s mission to break apart from Washington influence, also has to do with the simple fact that Washington has refused to sell spare parts to maintain and upgrade Venezuela’s fleet of F-16 jets, which are probably rusting in some work shed in that country. Of Venezuela’s twenty-two U.S. -supplied F-16 jets, only around eight are currently operational. While the Venezuelan Air Force has managed to keep some F-16 jets operational in the face of an embargo, a recent report in Military Technology outlines that “the jet’s medium-term serviceability [is] in obvious doubt.” From this point of view, it is only logical that Venezuela would turn to Russia, a country that holds no reservations in selling military hardware to any nation with enough cash.
Furthermore, even if Venezuela is upgrading its military more than other countries in its category, it is most likely doing so for defensive purposes. It would be ludicrous to believe that the country would launch any kind of military aggression against the U.S., shooting at Stealth bombers with rifles. Any kind of military aggression against nearby Caribbean islands or Guyana (with which Venezuela has a longstanding border dispute), would be internationally condemned. As a consequence, Chávez would lose the credibility he has painstakingly managed to create among his neighbors. An armed conflict with Brazil is also unlikely as this would have to be done mainly through air battles and guerrilla warfare, given that the border between both countries is basically an impenetrable jungle. In addition, Chávez wants to bring together the Southern Cone via the proposed gas pipeline, not conquer it. The only logical point of conflict could be Colombia, as relations between Caracas and Bogotá have been historically tense, particularly now during the Chávez and Uribe administrations. In 1987, the countries almost went to war when a Colombian warship was spotted in Venezuelan waters. However it is unlikely that an armed conflict would result because Colombia cannot afford to fight a two-front war – one against the Venezuelan military while simultaneously fighting the FARC and ELN. At the same time, politically speaking, Chávez could hardly afford to launch any kind of offensive if he would appear to be the aggressor.
Hugo Chávez, as a former military officer and with bitter memories of the failed April 2002 coup against him, understands the necessity of having a strong and loyal military serving him. In order to satisfy this perceived necessity, he needs to upgrade Venezuela’s military even if there are no logical immediate enemies for an offensive war. From this point of view, Venezuela’s recent arms purchases should be seen as defensive. At the same time, the country’s foreign policy of befriending pariah nations like Syria and Iran should not be regarded as some kind of potentially dangerous international cabal. The center of Chávez’s foreign policy seems to be focused around oil, whose earnings he in part uses to befriend oil-producing nations as well as major oil importers like China. In spite of whatever provocative statements the Venezuelan leader may make during his trips to Tripoli, Tehran and Minsk, he also understands that in order to gain the petro-dollars he needs to update his country’s military, he needs a stable environment, which today will only come from major oil clients like the U.S not roiling the waters.