– In recent years, Venezuela has increased military spending by more than US$4 billion
– Chavez’s increased military budget could spark a regional arms race and cause instability
– Through high oil revenue profits and growing military clout, Venezuela will seek to undermine US influence in the region
In recent years, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has spent more than US$4 billion on attack aircraft, helicopters, and small arms. Chavez is poised to spend billions more in late 2008 on Russian-made diesel submarines and air defense systems.
Hugo Chavez’s growing military clout was no more apparent than in Venezuela’s recent confrontation with Colombia over its raid into Ecuador that killed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) number two personality, Raul Reyes. Despite the raid occurring inside Ecuador, it was President Chavez who escalated the conflict by ordering nine battalions, tanks, and military aircraft to his country’s frontier with Colombia, putting the region on the brink of war.
Venezuela’s Military Spending and Sabre Rattling
Hugo Chavez has made Venezuela Latin America’s largest arms purchaser and Russia’s second-largest arms customer. Breaking his dependence on US companies, Chavez is seeking to diversify Venezuela’s arms suppliers.
J. Michael McDonnell, US National Security Director, and lieutenant general Michael Maples, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), claim that Venezuela has purchased up to four times the number of weapons it needs for domestic defense, with the primary goal of destabilizing US-allied nations in the region.
Speculation abounds that President Chavez is distributing small arms to terrorist groups, such as the FARC, in an effort to increase the group’s tactical capabilities against the Uribe government in Colombia. However, Maples asserts no clear evidence that Chavez is involved in such distribution exists, despite the calls by President Uribe that the Venezuelian President is engaging in such activities.
In recent years, Chavez has invested heavily in upgrades to his country’s conventional capabilities. To this end, Venezuela is in the final stages of purchasing nine diesel submarines from Russia, a move that greatly enhances the country’s naval capabilities. Chavez claims that his recent military purchases and greater reliance on Russia are needed to guard against a possible invasion by the US, a claim that is strongly dismissed by American government officials.
Regional Arms Race and Implications
Venezuela’s recent arms purchases have alarmed its neighbors, including Brazil and Colombia. Since Hugo Chavez began his military build-up, Brazil has increased its military budget by almost 50 percent. It is plausible other nations in the region could follow suit and increase their military budgets, an occurrence that could lead to a regional arms race and instability. Further, an arms race in the region may lead to additional conflicts, similar to the border confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela sparked by the cross-border killing of Raul Reyes.
In the near term, we can expect Venezuela to continue increasing its military budget. Chavez will likewise continue to pursue an increasingly close relationship with Russia, buying small arms, Russian Sukhoi fighter aircraft, and hurrying the proposed plan to acquire nine diesel submarines. Venezuela’s reliance on Russian weaponry is adding to the already brewing Washington-Moscow rivalry, further escalating tensions and worrying American officials of Russia’s growing involvement in the hemisphere.
Despite Venezuela’s arms deal with Russia to acquire advanced anti-aircraft weaponry, aircraft, and submarines, the weapon that could have the most impact on the region’s security and stability is the AK-47 assault rifle. Chavez has purchased the rifles to rearm his army and civilian guard, but as part of the AK-47 purchase, Russia agreed to help Venezuela build a new rifle factory in the city of Maracay. This has many government officials worrying that the factory’s output could eventually make its way to regional rebel groups, such as FARC. This would not only create regional instability, but would likely put both Venezuela and Colombia on the brink of war.
In the near term, Chavez will likely seek to continue undermining US influence in the region and attempt to attract other countries to his brand of populist socialism by employing various methods to include engaging in a massive arms build-up. Venezuela’s build-up will have the largest affect on Brazil and Colombia, two countries that remain intimately concerned over the regional implications of Chavez’s growing military clout. Colombia, a country Venezuela views as a pawn of the US, has stepped up offensive operations against FARC guerrillas and remains the most likely to come into conflict with Venezuela if a conventional conflict were to erupt in the region. While this is unlikely in the near to mid-term, Chavez’s increasing arms budget pushes the region closer to military confrontation.