December 27, 2005:
The Venezuelan government is on a weapons buying spree. Over the past year Venezuela has committed itself to buy 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 automatic rifles, plus licenses to produce about 300,000 more, as well as 44 helicopters, and even MiG-29 fighters from Russia. In addition, Venezuela is buying four coastal patrol boats, some transport aircraft, and possibly even a couple of frigates from Spain, as well as about two dozen light tactical support aircraft from Brazil. The total bill will likely exceed $2 billion.
While there is much trepidation about these purchases, by the openly anti-American Venezuelan government, the extent to which they are likely to add to further instability in Latin America is difficult to assess. Venezuelan president Chavez harbors suspicions about the loyalty of Venezuela's armed forces. As a result, in addition to reshuffling senior commanders, he has been raising pay and benefits for the troops, to keep them happy, so some of the arms purchases should be seen in the same light; providing new toys for the boys. As addition insurance against a coup, Chavez is creating a "Bolivarian Militia" that will ultimately number some two million, a force which Venezuela is unable to equip.
Moreover, since for decades the Venezuelan Armed Forces have relied on US and NATO standard equipment, some of the purchases are going to be very destabilizing. For example, Venezuela infantrymen and marines have been using the NATO standard FN 7.62mm FAL rifle for many years. In 2000 the Armed Forces decided to adopt the NATO standard FN 5.62mm FNC rifle, and several battalions have already been equipped with it. So introducing the AK-103/-104 (the current model of the famed AK-47), is going to be very disruptive.
And then there's the question of corruption. Shortly after the deal to buy the AKs was announced in December of '04, press reports began pointing out that the price was considerably higher than the international "market price" for the weapons. While the government charged that the press was biased and working for Venezuela's enemies, the evidence was compelling that an enormous amount of money had disappeared.
This is not to say that Chavez will not continue support for "revolutionary" movements in other countries. Venezuela is believed to be supporting the FARC and FNL in Colombia, and perhaps other groups in other countries. It is, however, not likely that Chavez will be overly generous, as his money will probably be diverted to support his new "ally," Evo Morales. Morales, recently elected president of Bolivia, has an economic program that will have disastrous consequences for his country without a steady infusion of foreign subsidies. Chavez will either be forced to provide this cash, or be seen to have abandoned a fellow "reformer."