US Moves to Thwart Spain’s Military Equipment Sale to Venezuela

Spanish firms continue to make plans for $1.6 billion sale of aircraft and boats to Venezuela, even as Washington raises objections. In public statements, Venezuela highlights the political importance of the deal, while Spain focuses on its commercial nature.

Caracas, Venezuela, November 24, 2005—In the most recent manifestation of the rift between Washington and Caracas, United States officials reiterated their objection to a Spanish defense contractor’s planned sale of at least 10 military transportation aircraft and 8 patrol boats to Venezuela.

“We have not decided yet whether or not to grant our permission for obtaining that technology,” the US ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre, said yesterday in Madrid, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We hope in the end that the transaction will not be carried out.”

Because the equipment contains U.S. parts, the U.S. can veto the sale of the boats and aircraft. Venezuela and Spain have suggested they may change the U.S. technology to European components in order to proceed with the deal. However, according to unnamed sources in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the added cost would make the deal unprofitable. According to Venezuela’s ambassador to Spain, Arévalo Méndez Romero, because of available European technology, a U.S. veto “is of no concern.”

Washington has raised objections to Spanish sale of military equipment to Venezuela since last April, citing its concern that it could contribute to regional instability, and warning Madrid that it could lead to an Andean arms race. Washington has previously voiced its concern about weapons acquisition in Venezuela, when the country bought helicopters and assault rifles from Russia.

Despite U.S. concerns of an increase in weapons in the region, the country continues to provide it with military aid. According to the Center for International Policy, in FY2005, US military aid to Latin America will be almost $860 million, compared to $921 million in economic aid.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has said that the transportation aircraft and patrol boats are “peaceful” military equipment, which will be used to fight illegal drug trafficking and bring greater stability to the region. Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez Frías echoed Zapatero’s comments, saying that the boats will be used to improve Venezuela’s ability to prevent drug trafficking along its coasts.

Washington has in recent months criticized Caracas’ counter narcotics efforts, decertifying Venezuela as a country that cooperates in the fight against drugs.

Highlighting the political importance of the deal to the Venezuelan government, which has framed the deal as proof of its independence from the US, Chávez had said that Venezuela’s signing of the deal is contingent upon the presence of Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono. Bono is not scheduled to visit Caracas, but a Spanish Defense Ministry spokesman told Defense News that that could change.

However, Venezuela’s Méndez Romero said yesterday, “If the defense minister doesn’t come the contract will be signed with EADS-CASA and Navantia.”

Since Washington’s most recent comments, Spain has downplayed the political importance of the deal, framing it as a commercial transaction between Venezuela and two Spanish firms. The almost $1.6 billion deal, the largest defense order in Spain’s history, is seen as important to the country’s economy.

Relations between Washington and Caracas have been poor since the U.S. failed to tell Venezuela of the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. Washington-Madrid relations worsened after Zapatero’s decision, shortly after his election, to remove Spanish troops from Iraq.