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Chávez’s purchase of $15 billion in weapons causes concern in Latin America

March 22, 2011

www.miamiherald.com

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s purchases of weapons totaling more than $15 billion causes concern in Latin America.

With the acquisition of hundreds of tanks, helicopters and bulletproof vehicles as well as submarines and missile networks, Venezuela is arming itself at a speed unprecedented in the history of the South American country.

Experts consulted by El Nuevo Herald have said that Hugo Chávez’s has created unrest in the region with purchases to expand its military that total more than $15 billion.

The analysts warned that the purchases are made in an improvised fashion, following a “dubious” process with no bidding or prior studies, which could lead the country to acquire a Russian technology difficult to adopt and rejected by segments of the National Armed Forces.

The funds Chávez is using for the purchase of these new weapons, the largest in the nation’s history, are in good part coming from loans.

“There have been important acquisitions in the country but never of such magnitude,” said Carlos Julio Peñaloza, former chief of the Unified Command of Venezuela’s Armed Forces.

And it could end up being a lot more than $15 billion.

Some analysts said that the purchases made so far add up to about $30 billion, a figure Chávez himself has said he wishes to spend to modernize the country’s armed forces.

A report by the Association for Citizen Control for the Security and Defense of the Nation, a Venezuelan NGO that follows this issue closely, says the country has received or is about to receive a long list of equipment and military installations supplied mostly by Russia, China and Spain.

The list includes 92 mid-size T-72B1V tanks, about 240 bulletproof infantry vehicles (BMP-3 and 8×8 BTR-80), nine submarines, nearly 50 vessels of different sizes, dozens of Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighting airplanes, an undetermined number of Chinese J-10 fighter airplanes, and close to a hundred Russian helicopters, a good part of which were designed for combat operations.

The information also includes S-300 anti-airstrike missile systems, known by NATO as SA-20 Gargoyle, capable of following 100 objectives at the same time, including cruise missiles, while trying to down six of them simultaneously from a distance of 125 miles.

Venezuela has also obtained commitments to build weapon plants in the country, including a powder factory with Iran’s help, a plant to build AK-103/AK-104 assault rifles and a plant to build 7.6 by 39 mm ammunition.

Chávez has also acquired about 100,000 AK-103/AK-104 assault rifles, and 5,000 high-precision Dragunov SDVS rifles for snipers, besides 1,000 portable RPG-7V2 anti-tank rocket launchers, plus another 1,000 portable anti-air Igla-S missile launchers. The latter ones, of similar characteristics as the U.S. Stinger, have generated unrest within the U.S State Dept., which fears that some might end up in the hands of Colombian guerrillas with devastating results against the helicopters their neighbor country uses to fight rebel forces.

Washington has watched closely the purchases Venezuela has made in recent years. State Department officials have expressed concerns to their Russian counterparts about the massive sales of weapons to the South American country.

Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank based in Washington, said the lack of transparency in the acquisition of weapons in Latin America is a preoccupying issue, but that Venezuela’s purchases, combined with Chávez’s inflammatory rhetoric, could prompt other countries to arm themselves.

Shifter said part of the purchases could be justified by the need to modernize the country’s armed forces, but the absence of clarity about the equipments and the purpose for which they are being obtained creates nervousness in the region.

“The problem is Chávez’s belligerent rhetoric,” Shifter said. “This creates more concern and anxiety about the purpose of these weapons and their intended use.

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