Chávez Stepping Out of Bounds

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez is adding weapons imports to his leftist crusade. That's a combustible mix.

This week, Mr. Chávez signed deals with Brazil that include the likely acquisition of at least a dozen light- attack aircraft.

At the same time, Venezuela is negotiating with Russia to purchase as many as 50 Mig-29 SMT fighter jets (the most advanced type) to replace its American-made F-16s. This on top of an agreement to buy 40 Russian military helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

Washington protested to Moscow last week, citing the potential of a "destabilizing effect on the hemisphere." But the Russians shot down the complaint, and Chávez once again chided the US for "meddling."

Specifically, the US is concerned the weapons will find their way into rebel hands in neighboring Colombia. There, President Alvaro Uribe is trying to put down a longstanding leftist insurgency and fight the drug trade. Colombia is Washington's close ally, and the largest recipient of US security aid outside the Middle East.

Colombia and Venezuela verged on war in 1987, when the two were locked in a territorial dispute. This week, they managed to defuse a political crisis over a wanted Colombian rebel who had a bounty on his head and had been kidnapped from Venezuela. Bogota accuses the leftist government in Caracas of harboring insurgents.

Washington is concerned about Chávez's antidemocratic course and his plans to divert Venezuelan oil from the US to China. How the populist leader handles his economy is one thing, but embarking on a potential arms race with Colombia (and thus the US), and beefing up the military while cracking down on Venezuelans' liberties, is not just his affair.

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