The Venezuelan Powder Keg

(ISA Intelligence Consulting, 03/08/2007 )


Belarus and Venezuela have reportedly agreed to a US$1 billion arms contract that would make the former Soviet country Venezuela's second largest supplier of military weapons after Russia.


The chief of the Belarusian Security Council announced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had agreed to the deal on 23 July.


Claiming Venezuela must be prepared to protect its significant oil and gas resources, Chavez defends his military spending as a necessity.


Yet such heavy spending on conventional weapons runs counter to Chavez' constant talk of leading the Venezuelan military into a fourth-generation, asymmetrical warfare posture.


Having purchased thousands of AK-103 and 104 rifles from Russia, Chavez long ago began training tens of thousands of Venezuelan civilians in the art of guerrilla warfare, with everyday farmers, factory workers and merchants learning how to dig tunnels, camouflage outposts and engage the enemy, in the same manner that rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would engage Colombian government soldiers.


With two contradictory positions coming from the same leader, many remain confused about Chavez's real plans and the motivations behind significant weapons purchases and his talk of guerrilla warfare.


Chavez is focused on staying in power. To do so he must placate two important audiences - the people and the Venezuelan armed forces.


Purchasing what amounts to big toys keeps Venezuelan generals happy and loyal. He is essentially buying off the top brass of the military, specifically the men who could be disloyal and who he cannot fire without risking a major upheaval. At the same time, he sends the message to the rest of South America, that Venezuela is a significant regional military power, which in turn facilitates some of his regional political goals.


These helicopters, fighter jets, submarines, tanks, etc, would be the first targets in the event of a foreign invasion of Venezuela. Chavez's oft-repeated prediction that the US will invade Venezuela is little more than hot air. Yet, by repeating this phrase, he's able to maintain at least a minimal level of agitation among his supporters - the very men and women who have volunteered to become part of a civilian militia.


They believe in his Socialist Revolution and make up the core group of men and women who would truly defend Venezuela if the US invaded. But more importantly, they make up the bulk of resistance fighters who would join Chavez if he were ever forced out of office by his enemies in the Venezuelan military. Such an event would lead to civil war - a reality none of Chavez' enemies can stomach.


Meanwhile, most Venezuelans do not know the US is desperate to reestablish military ties with Venezuela, especially the US Southern Command (South Com). This branch of the US military oversees Latin America and is specifically worried about drug shipments leaving Venezuelan territory for US shores.


When a US Coast Guard vessel interdicts any craft at sea, it must first go through the proper channels before boarding what amounts to sovereign territory, indicated by the flag under which it sails. Going through South Com, the US Coast Guard can secure permission from all countries in the region except Venezuela for such operations, and savvy drug traffickers have begun flying Venezuelan flags, knowing they can avoid interdiction. Over time, this loophole has grown significantly, and is having a major, deleterious impact on maritime drug interdictions in the Caribbean.


The US needs to retain military relations with Venezuela simply to maintain continuity among all nations working together to fight organized crime in the Americas. But Chavez's own political goals and his rhetoric at home disallow that necessity. He claims Venezuela is leading the region in cocaine interdiction, but so far has ignored frequent reports that top officials with the Venezuelan National Guard are directly involved in trafficking cocaine to Mexico. By most accounts, corruption is rampant at all levels of the Venezuelan government.


When looked upon as a whole, the Venezuelan defense organization is under the control of Chavez. He spends money to keep would-be dissidents happy and forms a civilian militia not to protect the nation but his own power. He ignores a real need to work with the US military because of political considerations and has broken bread with Russia, Belarus, Iran, Syria and others.


Chavez's words and actions are not sustainable. When the day arrives for Chavez to leave office, it will not be peaceful. If forced out, he will not go quietly. If allowed to continue well into the future, corruption and greed will mix with billions of dollars and an arsenal of heavy weaponry. It is a recipe for disaster. In most cases, when countries purchase weapons it increases the security of the nation. Venezuela is the opposite. With every gun, tank, jet, or missile purchased, the country becomes less stable and more volatile. Eventually, it will not take much of a spark for the Chavez administration to explode.