Latin leaders try to diffuse tensions

Arms deal by Venezuela's Chávez high on agenda of regional summit Tuesday.

Why would Venezuela's 32,000-strong Army need 100,000 new rifles? That was the question asked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a tour of South America last week.

"I just can't imagine what's going to happen to [them]," he said, in reference to a huge arms purchase planned by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Mr. Rumsfeld's concern has been echoed by Venezuela's neighbors, particularly Colombia, whose ongoing border dispute with Venezuela has been heightened by several high-profile diplomatic battles in recent months.

Mr. Chávez's assertive international posture is becoming a common feature of Latin American politics. He has publicly insulted the presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia, saying neither was a "true" revolutionary; waded into a contentious border dispute between Chile and Bolivia; and used his country's oil wealth to undermine the US embargo on Cuba.

Now leaders from Brazil, Colombia, and Spain will gather Tuesday in Venezuela, hoping to lower tensions raised by Chávez's blunt approach - and, for some, limit his reach around the continent.

"They want to convince Chávez to avoid creating more friction in the region," says Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group in Washington.

While popular at home, critics have long pointed to Chávez's authoritarian leanings, accusing him of limiting freedom of the press, stacking the courts, and using excessive force against protesters. But now his efforts to extend his "revolution for the poor" to other countries is concerning some Latin leaders.

To date, no conclusive financial link has been established between Chávez and opposition groups in other countries. Yet he has provided considerable moral and rhetorical support to such people as Bolivia's Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party and a leading candidate for president in 2007. Earlier this year, La Razón, a newspaper here, reported that Mr. Morales flew on a Venezuelan government plane, and the two have met publicly in several high-profile regional gatherings. Such behavior is unusual for a head of state, akin to having British Prime Minister Tony Blair provide transportation for a Democratic leader looking to unseat President Bush.

"In Chávez, [Morales] sees someone who used the power of the presidency to wipe out the existing political elite, transform the government, and bring power to groups that have traditionally been excluded from politics," says Kurt Weyland, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas.

The same is reported to be true elsewhere. In Peru, President Alejandro Toledo has found himself trying to quash a militaristic nationalist movement led by brothers Antauro and Ollanta Humala. Like Morales, the Humala brothers openly expressed their admiration for Chávez. Peruvian press reports in January accused Chávez of providing $100,000 in aid to the group, a charge the Venezuelan government denied. The capture of Antauro Humala and dozens of his fighters in January has since lessened his organization's threat.

In neighboring Colombia, where the government, paramilitaries, and leftist forces have waged a long and deadly campaign fueled by the cocaine trade, Venezuela has professed neutrality. By contrast, other regional leaders have come out firmly behind President Alvaro Uribe. That has led to suspicions in Colombia that Chávez provides support and protection for rebel groups on its side of their 1,400-mile border.

When Venezuela announced plans to complete a major weapons purchase from Russia - including the 100,000 AK-47 rifles and as many as 50 attack helicopters and 30 MiG-29 fighter jets - Colombia said that it feared rebel groups would be the beneficiaries. Venezuela says it is simply replacing aging equipment. Spain says it might sell transport planes and military patrol ships to Venezuela and could announce the deal during Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's visit this week, his first to the region.

Last December, the relationship between Venezuela and Colombia hit a new low when a senior Colombian rebel leader, Rodrigo Granda, was snatched from Caracas by Colombian forces. Chávez said the capture was a violation of national sovereignty. The leaders of the two countries met in February to diffuse tensions caused by the incident.

Chávez has also taken frequent aim at the US, accusing the Bush administration of having "imperial" aims and of supporting a short-lived coup against him in 2002. Venezuela provides up to 15 percent of America's oil.

In testimony before Congress this month, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said that Chávez's "efforts to concentrate power at home, his suspect relationship with destabilizing forces in the region, and his plans for arms purchases are causes of major concern."

Still, it's unlikely Chávez will be going away anytime soon. Venezuela's opposition is fragmented, with no clear leader to challenge him in the 2006 elections.

"Chávez is in a very strong position right now," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But the real question for the hemisphere is whether Chávez's values should succeed. Was the fight against dictatorship and for individual freedom and the rule of law in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina something that the people of Latin America want to see continue?"

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