As Chávez gains Latin American stature, analysts wonder about implications for US

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has become increasingly involved in the affairs of his Latin American neighbors, often as a direct challenge to the US.

Venuzuelan President Hugo Chávez, a leftist who has criticized the US for interfering in the affairs of other nations, has begun pursuing a policy of regional interventions in Latin America. This week he will travel to Colombia to try to convince the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel movement, to release 45 hostages who have been held for years. He has also begun supplying neighboring nations with large sums of economic aid and purchasing large stocks of weapons from abroad, often with the intent of openly challenging the US.

President Chávez will arrive in Bogotá on Friday at the request of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe – a close US ally. He will try to gain the release of the hostages – three of whom are American – by offering to exchange hundreds of FARC rebels currently detained in Colombian jails. While he looks unlikely to score any quick successes, the Associated Press reports that getting involved may be a gamble worth taking for the ambitious Chávez, who has used soaring oil revenues to increase Venezuela's aid to neighbors and to support left-wing causes.

Chavez unabashedly targets the US government and his detractors in countries from Mexico to Spain with incendiary rhetoric, but has seldom involved himself so directly with the internal affairs of another nation. He has long sought to maintain cordial relations with the US-allied Uribe despite their ideological differences.

If he succeeds in Colombia, he could expand his influence and improve his image.

Expanding influence has been a focus for Chávez since taking office in 1998, but his efforts have really gained traction in recent years thanks to the leverage created by soaring oil prices. Venezuela now provides more direct aid to Latin American and Caribbean states than Chávez's ideological enemy, the US, reports the Associated Press. So far this year, Chávez's government has made $8.8 billion in aid commitments. That is creating concerns in some quarters about the likely impact on US interests, especially coming from a leader who has called President George W. Bush "The Devil," and described current US policies as a threat to the survival of the human race.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Chávez said he was planning on making a major purchase of sniper rifles from Russia and implied they could be used to defend the country from the US.

"I'm going to buy 5,000 Dragunov rifles from Russia ... with telescopic sight, the best in the world, with infrared night-view," Chavez said during his weekly Sunday broadcast held on a beach along Venezuela's eastern coast.

"We will knock out any imperialist that approaches."

Earlier this month, a US deputy assistant secretary of defense alleged while on a visit to Bogota that Venezuela's arms buildup is designed to "intimidate neighbors," reports Reuters.

The Bush administration has banned US arms sales to Venezuela, criticized Chavez's purchase of jets from Moscow and said his plans to build rifle factories raise concerns about weapons reaching guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

"It seems as if a build up of this character doesn't really respond to the reality on the ground there," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Stephen Johnson told reporters during a visit Bogota.

"It has an effect of intimidating neighbors ... and democracies in the region need to be able to respond to this in a way that will help reduce this kind of threat," he said.

Mr. Johnson, who took up his post this year and prior to that was working as an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, was a major critic of Chávez's aspirations. In a 2006 article for the conservative National Review, he argued that Chávez is cleverly improving his strategic position, while also playing down the long-term threat.

...when he spoke at the U.N. General Assembly this week, President Chávez made it clear that his objective is to lead a global coalition to confront the United States. To do that, he must build an empire of his own. With improvised oil alliances, he seeks to turn a commodity into a strategic political tool. Through arms purchases, he hopes to shore up his own strength and supply neighboring guerrilla movements. In multilateral forums, he proposes to remake institutions to suit his purposes.

For the time being, Venezuela's threat is limited — U.N. members will likely think twice before voting for Venezuela to occupy the rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. Some may dislike America's prosperity and denounce its palpable influence in world affairs, but that doesn't mean they want to be identified with a capricious leader who seems to have become all he denounces.

But even as Chávez's regional influence expands, there are some signs of trouble at home, argued the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based advocacy group that aims to prevent conflict, in a report early this year.

Traditional checks and balances on executive power have all but disappeared as key state institutions, such as the attorney general's office, the Supreme Justice Tribunal, the electoral council, and the armed forces, have progressively come under the control of the president and his loyalists, with military officers, active duty and reserve alike, filling many normally civilian offices.

The proliferation of armed groups also could become troublesome. Many Chávista [Chávez supporters] groups, particularly in Caracas, have access to weapons, while additional government-established groups like the Frente Francisco Miranda, a civilian organisation made up of young people sent to Cuba for ideological training, are due to receive them.

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