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.
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.
5,000 tear-gas grenades
"There is strong evidence that the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons was frequently indiscriminate," against February and March 2004 opposition protests, Amnesty International wrote in a report. Some of the tear gas canisters were US made, others were locally made. "We're concerned about [the US sales], particularly the antiriot transfers," said Eric Olson, an arms expert with Amnesty International USA.
US sales in 2002 included 5,000 tear-gas grenades, 2,000 tear-gas projectiles, and 25 tear-gas launchers to Cojedes, a poor, rural, state governed by a Chávez supporter. The shipment was criticized by Pedro Castillo, an anti-Chávez member of the National Assembly. "There's one tear gas canister for every resident of the state," Mr. Castillo remarked in 2003.
Mr. Isacson says the US is also selling crowd-control chemicals to Bolivia, and "the next time Bolivia blows up I think they'll be used quite a bit."
In a telephone interview, Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, called Venezuela's arms purchases routine. He called the US government's criticism of of Venezuela's democracy and human rights record "hypocritical."
"I think they don't want to know that we need to replace very old weapons, update our old aircraft. That's all we want to do," said Ambassador Alvarez.
To be sure, the US arms sold to Venezuela are dwarfed by sales by some other nations, and US sales have declined as relations have degenerated. In 1999, Chávez's first year in office, the US issued $132 million in licenses, but only $24 million last year. And most of the US licenses cover routine purchases such as equipment and spare parts for big-ticket items like Venezuela's US-made F-16 fighter jets.
Arms control advocates say the US's weapons-export controls are among the world's strictest. Those controls can include end-user checks to confirm that weapons are used as intended. But Isacson doubts that Venezuela would allow US officials to monitor Venezuela's weapons stock.
Concern about US arms exports to Venezuela extends to the late 1990s, when escalating firearms exports generated suspicions that guns were being smuggled to Colombia, where the US is backing the government in a civil war against leftist guerrillas. In 1999, the Clinton administration suspended gun sales to private Venezuelan companies. The State Department resumed the review of these exports in 2001, but clamped down again after the April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, when some 17 people were killed by rifle shots.
The State Department now licenses firearms sales only to government buyers in Venezuela.
The US is not the only nation that appears to have a contradictory position with Venezuela. Spain's President Jose Maria Aznar, who governed from 1996 until 2004, once suggested that Chávez was taking Venezuela down the same road as communist, authoritarian Cuba. Nevertheless, Spain sold Venezuela light arms and riot control equipment. The Spanish Embassy in Caracas did not respond to a request for comment.
And Israel, despite Chávez's warm relations with Iran, Libya, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, has escalated its arms sales to Venezuela. In 2002 Israel sold it 54 surface-to-air missiles and in 2004, 57 air-to-air missiles.
The Israeli Embassy did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But in a 2003 interview about a 2002 sale of 115 Uzi machine guns to the rural state of Cojedes, then-Ambassador Arie Tenne pointed out that the state is larger in area than Israel and that Israel and Venezuela had normal diplomatic relations, as they do today. "Weapons and materials can be misused and abused," he said. "But there's nothing that the original seller can do about it."