Russia-Venezuela Deal May Harm South America

(International Relations and Security Network, 03/08/2006)


Each time Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez embarks on a world tour, he takes every opportunity to promote his unique brand of socialism, South American regionalism and the evil of Washington.


His current tour - which as taken him through Belarus, Russia, Vietnam and Mali - has been a remarkable one so far. While in Russia, Chavez signed off on a billion dollars worth of weapons deals that have cemented as fact that the Venezuelan military has the most firepower in Latin America.


Russian support for Chavez is irresponsible. It has given Russian president Vladimir Putin limited leverage over his on-again-off-again ally US president George W Bush, and a significant shot in the arm to Russia's military industry. But the ripple effects of Russia's geopolitical support for Chavista power aspirations have destabilized the balance of power in South America. Most significantly, Brazil's regional leadership has been challenged.


Brazilian president Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva has his hands full with a presidential election campaign just underway. He is in no place to take a position that could potentially be used by his competition to steal votes. However, members of the Brazilian Congress are not sitting still. Former Brazilian president Jose Sarney penned a strongly worded editorial on 23 July that acknowledged two facts that should worry Brazil: Chavez's announcement that he would remain in office until 2031, and the fact that by the end of this year, the Venezuelan leader will have consolidated a powerful army.


Writing in the Folha de Sao Paulo daily newspaper, Sarney says that Venezuela is a major concern for Brazilian security. Brazilian war-game scenarios prepare the country's military to wage battle on two fronts, Bolivia and Colombia, but now Brazil must consider Venezuela as well.


Sarney poignantly argues that the money Brazil would spend to increase its military strength should be spent on bread instead. Brazil, like every other country in Latin America, needs to spend more money on social programs that decrease disparity and support the poorest, who live on less than US$1 a day.


In the meantime, Chavez, the champion of socialism in South America, spends more money on military toys than he does on social programs.


Chavez has purchased at least 30 Su-30 fighter jets, some 53 combat and support helicopters, and according to reports, Tor-M1 air-defense missile systems. These conventional weapons purchases stack-up against a small arms purchase of 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles from Russia. There also plans to establish at least one AK-series rifles factory in Venezuela.


But for many observers, the million dollar is question is why Venezuela needs all these weapons if it is clear that the US will not invade.


Some believe that Chavez has purchased the aircraft and helicopters to consolidate his power over what has been an increasingly fractious military in Venezuela by placing most of the firepower with Venezuela's air force, Chavez's pet branch. But officially, the helicopters will be used to help patrol Venezuela's borders with Colombia, especially in Zulia, the Venezuelan state where Colombian rebels and paramilitaries have increasingly become present.


Perhaps most worrying, the rifles will be used to replace old rifles, which may then go to the army of reservists and civilian militia currently in training. A new rifle factory could help arm the million civilians Chavez hopes to have trained over the next few years, ostensibly to defend the country against a US invasion.


Meanwhile, Chavez has stepped up his regionalist rhetoric since Venezuela's official entrance into South America's customs union, Mercosur. Apart from claiming that South America, through Mercosur, should form an economic union, complete with a common currency, Chavez says South America should unify its armed forces into one anti-imperialist power.


But the idea of such an economic union backed by a region-wide military is delusional. Nevertheless, Chavez pushes forward.


Just last May, he was in Bolivia with his defense minister, General Raul Baudel, the former commander of the Venezuelan armed forces. Clearly, the two met with Bolivian generals, and many believe that those meetings discussed the possibility of Venezuelans training Bolivians in the art of asymmetrical combat strategies - Chavez's favored form of warfare.


Brazil is already worried that Venezuelan and Cuban spies are crawling around in Bolivia, a country that shares a very porous border with Brazil. Chavez's recent visit there is no doubt unsettling to Brazil's top generals. The reality of warfare in South America is more talked about than planned for, but pragmatic Brazilian generals cannot ignore the threat Venezuelan military power poses to Brazilian sovereignty. If Brazil chooses to enter an arms race, it would not be a stretch to speculate that other countries, including Colombia, might soon follow.


Rather than spurring regional integration, Chavez is promoting South American fragmentation, and Putin's move to sell weapons to Venezuela gives Russia geopolitical leverage that is not proportional to the amount of destabilization it creates in South America.


The region is a long way from international conflict, but the current path leads to tension. With all the talk of regional trade initiatives, a transcontinental pipeline and joint initiatives to do this and that bubbling on the surface, it is easy to overlook the growing concern in Brazil that is too deep to register with mainstream international media.


As much as Chavez desires to become the leader, commander-in-chief and ruler supreme of South America, he must know that it will never happen. But these are late-night thoughts he probably keeps to himself, and certainly does not share with Putin. Both men know that Sarney is right. Latin America should be spending its money on bread, not bullets, but instead is playing risky war games that will lead to destabilization, not a unified front against imperialism that Chavez claims to promote.