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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.

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Many of those that would have Venezuela sinisterly rebuilding a Russian bulwark against US “leadership” also tend to cite Chávez’s open-arms embrace of Iran as providing covert support for the Islamic nation’s nuclear ambitions. That hypothesis was ridiculed by US government officials in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year.

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Then came Sunday's op-ed in The Washington Post by Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush. He wrote "that Iran and Venezuela are conspiring to sow Tehran’s brand of proxy terrorism in the Western Hemisphere."

Mr. Noriega details an Aug. 22, 2010, secret meeting that Chávez hosted for leaders from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). "That these infamous criminals left their traditional havens demonstrates their confidence in Chávez and their determination to cultivate a terror network on America’s doorstep," Noriega wrote.

There are concerns, to be sure, but my diplomatic sources say Venezuela does not pose an immediate terrorist threat. Merely allowing Iranians and Palestinians into the country, they add, is not enough to justify it as a terrorist sponsor as some would like. In my own reporting, I've also asked Jewish leaders here if they're afraid of Hezbollah setting up a base for an attack, such as the 1994 Argentina bombing, and the answer is mostly no.

But Chávez's bellicosity, and his $15 billion in military spending, certainly doesn't put worried minds at ease – and that's something that Obama's current visit to Latin America may be subtly counteracting by standing alongside more level-headed regional leaders in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.

As Chávez continues to wage expensive, anachronistic ideological battles – all the while struggling to revive one of Latin America’s worst-performing economies – his largest neighbors are deftly weighing the best deals on offer from the US and whoever else wants to do business.

Despite the scaremongers’ best attempts to raise the red alert, the country most threatened by Chávez's military shopping spree is Venezuela itself.

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