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Chávez ratchets up military spending, as Obama reaches out to Latin America

Reports that Hugo Chávez has ordered more than $15 billion in weapons, along with recently hosting leaders from Hamas and Hezbollah, doesn't put worried minds at ease.

By Jasmina KelemenCorrespondent / March 22, 2011



Caracas, Venezuela

Watching from Caracas, it's been extraordinary to see President Obama stand beside Latin American leaders as near economic equals. Emerging largely unscathed from the global economic crisis, Brazil’s first female president politely expressed sympathy for the US’s need to restore growth and then firmly pressed the Obama administration to drop protectionist tariffs against Brazilian exports ranging from oranges to aircraft.

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For some Beltway observers who are still more comfortable viewing Latin America as a socialist-prone “backyard,” it must have been jarring to hear the leader of the world’s seventh-largest economy – home to one of the world’s largest oil discoveries in decades and a leader in biofuel research – essentially tell the US “we’ll drop our tariffs, when you drop yours.”

How comforting then it must be for old cold war-trained stalwarts to still have the camouflage-clad Hugo Chávez thundering away against imperialism, while amassing Russian-made weapons with oil-backed loans. Reports estimate that President Chávez has ordered more than $15 billion worth of weapons, including hundreds of tanks, helicopters, submarines, and Chinese-made fighter airplanes.

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“The Russia-Venezuela condominium is emblematic of geopolitical forces rising to challenge US leadership and influence,” Ariel Cohen, a former Soviet expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in a recent report.

Even taking into account a legitimate need for military modernization, the US has made clear it is uncomfortable with Venezuela’s frenetic pace of purchases, which critics insist could spark a regional arms race. Venezuela, meanwhile, insists that sitting downwind and unarmed from the world’s sole superpower is just as uncomfortable.

In a world defined solely by geopolitics, the military buildup is frightening but the geopolitical argument taken alone ignores the billions of dollars worth of commerce linking regional economies. For example, Venezuela and Colombia are both among each other’s most important trading partners and both sides have taken concrete steps towards improving their frayed ties since President Juan Manual Santos replaced Álvaro Uribe last year.

“While this may not fully appease skeptics about Chávez’s intentions, it is a gross distortion to define the Venezuelan leader as a 'security threat,' ” the Council of Hemispheric Affairs wrote in a policy report earlier this year.

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