Saturday, October 07, 2006

Venezuela's arms purchases

A student of mine, Alejandro, asked me about all the recent Venezuelan arms acquisitions. In particular, he wanted to know whether there was a threat that they could eventually get into the hands of groups in neighboring countries, especially in Colombia. I think the answer is yes.

I blogged about the big Venezuelan purchase of Russian guns and helicopters in July. In the meantime, the U.S. has charged that other Latin American countries are becoming concerned about the arms build-up. Hugo Chávez rejected that idea, calling on Colombian president Uribe to say something if he had such a concern. Despite sometimes open tension between the two, Uribe simply said that Colombia had good relations with Venezuela, wisely choosing not to stick himself in between the U.S. and Venezuela (earning Chávez’s thanks in the process).

Any country will be concerned if a neighbor buys large amounts of weapons and even discusses opening a factory to manufacture more. In terms of regional harmony, there is nothing to good to say about arms purchases. Really, there is almost nothing good to say about arms purchases in general, especially in Latin America where external threats are few and far between.

The main question is why Chávez is buying them. I don’t think he has territorial conquest in mind, and although his government has repressive tendencies, I don’t think he is amassing weapons to use against his own people. He does want to be viewed as a regional and global leader, so a beefed up military may contribute to that (he hoped to be at the forefront of a regional force).

But I’d be willing to bet that to some degree (how much is difficult to tell) he is genuinely concerned about the U.S. attempting to overthrow him, and also wants to play that up to garner more popular sympathy. The Bush administration has done just enough to give that very impression, which then feeds right into Chávez’s paranoia. If the U.S. were friendly, would Chávez buy those arms anyway? There is, of course, no way of knowing, but I do think our short-sighted foreign policy is contributing.


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