Venezuela is fast becoming Washington's most ardent ally in Latin America - largely supporting, for instance, United States policy on El Salvador. The Reagan administration is showing its gratitude by approving the sale of 24 F-16 jet fighters to the Venezuelans.
This week's visit to Washington of Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins and his talks with President Reagan are indications of this new warmth.
But as the two presidents meet, the fighter sale is sparking controversy. If not scotched by Congress before January, the $600-million deal would shatter the longstanding US refusal to introduce sophisticated weaponry into Latin America. Critics say the sale could open a major Latin American arms race.
Observers see this as no idle possibility. Latin American nations have nearly doubled their spending on armaments in the past two years.
Some of this is due to inflation, but a great deal of the increase results from calls for more arms by Latin American military rulers, who control over half the area's population.
During the recent Venezuela-United States Policy Dialogue in Washington, a number of US participants in the session criticized the sale, but the Venezuelans tended to support it.
The Reagan administration, apparently undeterred by the criticism, sees little likelihood the sale will trigger an arms race and asserts that Venezuela's Air Force needs upgrading, that it's getting hard to find spare parts for some of the old planes now in use.
Additionally, administration spokesmen note that Venezuela is one of Latin America's few stable democracies. President Reagan alluded to this fact and to Venezuela's civilian leadership during his public appearances with Mr. Herrera Campins.
Latin America-watchers have no doubt that these democratic underpinnings are a source of strength for Venezuela. They make Venezuela's voice all the more impressive.
Venezuelan support for the US stance in El Salvador, for example, has attracted widespread attention throughout Latin America, even in circles where US policy of support for El Salvador's joint military-civilian junta is criticized. It is also noted that Venezuelan support for Washington is not total. The two countries differ on policy toward the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, although Venezuela is beginning to have some doubts about the direction of politics and economics there.
As for El Salvador policy, it is often noted that President Herrera Campins and Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte have a natural tie, since both are Christian Democrats. But this is not the only reason for the Venezuelan government's Salvadoran stand. And elements of Accion Democratica, Venezuela's other major party, endorses the national policy on Salvador.