US plays both Venezuela sides
While the Bush administration engages in a war of words with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the US government has been giving permits to American arms dealers to sell weapons, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment to Venezuela.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At the same time, the US Congress has indirectly funded anti-Chávez pro-democracy groups.
"It's a bizarre working at cross- purposes," says Adam Isacson, who follows Venezuela for the left-leaning Center for International Policy in Washington. "You have bad relations with this government, and you're selling them the means to put down opposition protests."
Defense and Commerce department records show that in 2002, Washington issued licenses to export to Venezuela more than 7,000 pistols and rifles and 22 million rounds of ammunition, as well as riot-control equipment and interrogator sets. In 2003, it issued licenses for $43 million in military equipment sales, including a million cartridges, 1,000 pistols, and ammunition. Last year it issued $24.6 million in licenses, including $425,000 in tear gas. This year, the US has approved export licenses for police gear, restraint devices such as leg irons, stun gun-type arms and chemical agents.
During this time, the US has been critical of the Chávez government's support of leftist insurgencies and curbs on political opponents. In 2002, Washington welcomed the military-backed coup that unseated Chávez for two days. And last year, the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nongovernmental organization that receives most of its funding from the US Congress, helped finance an unsuccessful recall vote against Chávez.
In an e-mail response to questions about the weapons sales, the State Department said: "The United States reviews license applications for defense articles and services on a case-by-case basis. Given the increasingly undemocratic direction of the Venezuelan government, these licenses are being thoroughly reviewed."
For his part, Chávez, a charismatic populist, has warned that the US might invade Venezuela to seize its oil. On Sunday, Chávez said that he was ending cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, claiming it was spying on his government.
To prepare for a possible US invasion, Chávez has created a civilian reserve force that the government says will number two million people. Venezuela has also made a series of weapons deals, including planes from Brazil, ships from Spain, and helicopters and assault rifles from Russia. US officials have criticized Venezuela's democracy and its human rights record and suggested that Venezuela has aided guerrillas fighting Colombia's government, but offered no proof.
Alfredo Rangel, a military analyst with the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota, Colombia, says that Colombia is concerned about the 100,000 assault rifles Venezuela is buying from Russia, because of the quantity and compatibility with weapons used by Colombia's guerrillas. But he says that small arms - like the pistols, rifles, and ammunition sold by the US - also cause concern because they are easy to smuggle.
Others express concern about the Venezuelan government's use of US security equipment against its own people. The US government's 2004 human rights report on Venezuela included allegations that state security forces tortured detainees, including exposing people to tear gas inside of confined spaces.