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.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Graphic: Obama's spring break

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.

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.

Think you know South America? Take our geography quiz.

“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.

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.

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.

Think you know South America? Take our geography quiz.

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