Over the last year or so a glance at any article in the mainstream press regarding the Venezuelan military could lead you to believe that they are engaged in a large and threatening arms build up. When coupled with widespread criticisms of the Chavez government as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘populist’ this portrays a worrying picture to the majority of onlookers. While people don’t really know much about Venezuela, they get the impression that ‘Chavez is a bit dodgy’, and that his government is spending huge amounts on military hardware that threatens the stability of the region.
The asinine assertions of Chavez’s ‘authoritarianism’ can be easily refuted, but the purchase of submarines and aircraft are harder to explain. Military hardware is military hardware whichever way you look at it, and at first sight it is not easy to see why a country like Venezuela needs jet fighters, submarines or helicopters. Given that these systems cost billions of dollars, it is easy to interpret these purchases as part of a huge build up, out of all proportion to the needs of the nation.
All countries have a military doctrine that defines the ways in which their armed forces are armed and structured, as well as their purpose. In Venezuela’s case this doctrine has changed somewhat with the advent of the Bolivarian process. The Venezuelans are analysing where the threats to this process come from, and they are in the process of restructuring their armed forces in order to meet these threats.
The threats that Venezuela faces are clear if recent history is considered. All Latin American revolutionary processes have been targets of U.S. aggression in the political, economic and military spheres and Venezuela is no different. The coup attempt in 2002 was carried out with U.S. backing, and the vociferous domestic opposition is partially backed and funded by the U.S.[3,4]. The U.S. has several established bases in the region, including a listening post on the island of Curacao, off the Venezuelan coast; and in 2006 it carried out a large naval exercise in the Caribbean under the name “Operation Partnership of the Americas”. More worryingly, 11 months before the 2002 coup, the Spanish armed forces carried out exercises under the name “Operation Balboa” in which officers from a variety of NATO countries participated, and which simulated the invasion of Venezuela (called “Purple”) upon the request of a “Purple” government facing powerful rebel forces in the oil producing regions of the country. Given Spanish membership of NATO and the then Aznar government’s active support for the coup, it is hard to believe that this exercise was not linked to contingency plans in case the 2002 coup ran into armed resistance in the West of the country, in spite of U.S. denials that the exercises had anything to do with them. The capacity of the U.S. to carry out an invasion has been demonstrated not just by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by previous invasions of Panama, Grenada, and Santo Domingo. The aggression against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s also points towards another U.S.tactic to bring down revolutionary governments.
Given these historical precedents the Venezuelan armed forces are changing their structure from one built to deal with internal or regional threats, to one equipped to deal with the what they know perceive as the biggest threat: an invasion from the sea, or the establishment of a ‘contra’ army in a neighbouring country, as happened in the case of Nicaragua. Facing this dual threat requires certain types of equipment, some of which Venezuela previously had, such as F-16 fighter planes. However, since Chavez came to power the U.S. has refused to supply spare parts for these fighters, effectively grounding them. The U.S. has also blocked third countries, such as Spain, from selling Venezuela equipment that contains U.S. technology. This has left Venezuela with no choice but to seek new lines of supply for military equipment and build relationships with countries that have independent foreign policies.
The equipment that has been bought, dual-use helicopters, Sukhoi fighter planes, transport aircraft, and coastal protection ships, are types of equipment that will allow the Venezuelan armed forces to meet the threat posed by armed groups on the border with Colombia. It will also enable the Venezuelans to protect their maritime territory from incursions by drug traffickers and from foreign fishing fleets (drift net fishing is illegal in Venezuelan waters). The other purchases, AK-103 rifles, anti-aircraft missiles and the like are all patently defensive weapons designed to deter a potential aggressor. None of this equipment poses a credible threat to Venezuela’s neighbours, or indeed to the U.S.
The re-structure of the armed forces to include a large reserve force is a part of this strategy. This reserve will not be armed with large numbers of tanks or sophisticated equipment as its role is defensive. The reserves exist to ensure that an effective guerrilla force can be created in the case of any invasion. This is why Venezuela’s neighbours, Colombia, Brazil and Guyana, have not been the ones complaining about the arms build up. They know it poses no threat to them at all.
Now if we look at the figures, it becomes clear that in 2006 military expenditure was significantly higher in Chile and Colombia than in Venezuela, and that in fact Venezuelan annual military expenditure is, at $1,445 billion, on average lower under Chavez than under previous governments ($1,619 billion). The Chavez government has also spent less of its GDP on arms than previous governments (1.3-1.4% against 1.6-1.8%). Compare this to the 14.69% of GDP spent on social programmes. In addition, the types of arms being bought by Venezuela pose little threat to its neighbours, unlike the expenditure of Chile, which has bought submarines, tanks, destroyers and fighter aircraft in quantities sufficient to concern its neighbours. The Brazilian Military Power Review places Venezuela 5th in the regional chart of military potential, below Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Thus it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from becoming some kind of regional military superpower.
These facts show the total falsity of the allegations that Chavez is engaging Venezuela in an arms build up that threatens regional peace and stability, and they also help to disclose the worrying level of anti-Chavez propaganda that is finding its way into the mainstream media. Venezuela has worked hard at maintaining good relations with its neighbours and spends far more on investment and social programmes than it does on arms. The proof is that Venezuela is far more concerned about combating poverty, hunger and disease at home and in Latin America than fighting any war.
1. For examples see: Jeremy Page “Putin's billion-dollar arms sale risks souring Western détente” The Times, July 25th 2006; or Andy Webb-Vidal “Venezuela seeks arms edge over Colombia” FT.com, May 25th 2004; or Sophie Arie “Chavez prepares his people’s army to confront US” Telegraph.co.uk, March 4th 2006.
2. See Gobierno Bolivariano de Venezuela “Presidente Chávez llama a depurar influencia estadounidense de la formación militar nacional”
3. Mark Weisbrot and Robert Naiman “Correct the Facts on US-Venezuela Relations: Remember the Attempted Coup?” The Huffington Post, October 13th 2006.
4. Interview with Eva Golinger “Eva Golinger: Washington's 'three fronts of attack' on Venezuela” Green Left Online, November 17th 2006.
5. VHeadline.com's Philip Stinard writes: Extracts from a longer article by Eleazar Díaz Rangel “Operation Balboa: NATO war games simulated attack on Venezuela”
6. Noam Chomsky “Teaching Nicaragua a lesson” zmag.org.
7. Defense Industry Daily “US Roadblocks re: the Venezuela-Israel F-16 Upgrade: Politics or Protectionism?” October 26th 2006; or Cleto A. Sojo “Venezuela's Chavez Accuses U.S. of Delaying Parts for Ageing F-16 Fleet” Venezuela Analysis, February 14th 2005.
8. CNN.com “U.S. blocks Spain warplane sale” January 15th 2006.
9. James Petras “The US / Colombia Plot Against Venezuela” Counterpunch, January 25th 2005.
11. Oilwars.com “Venezuelan military spending – busting another anti-Chavez myth” June 11th 2007.
12. Lee Sustar “Where is Venezuela going?” Venezuela Analysis, July 16th 2007.
13. Council on Hemispheric Affairs “Chile’s Aggressive Military Arm Purchases Are Ruffling the Region, Alarming in Particular Bolivia, Peru and Argentina” August 7th 2007.
14. Military Power Review “Ranking do Poder Militar na América do Sul - 2006 / 2007” August 10th 2007.
15. Medialens “CHAVEZ AND RCTV - TILTING THE BALANCE AGAINST 'THE BAD GUY'” June 13th 2007.