In recent years President Hugo Chávez has become Washington’s ultimate Latin American nemesis, with the Venezuelan leader striving to bedevil the U.S. at every possible opportunity. While his rhetoric and flamboyant attitude might otherwise go unnoticed, Venezuela is an oil rich country and Chávez has used his ‘petro-dollars’ to upgrade his nation’s military, mostly through the purchase of Russian-weaponry, and has implemented a foreign policy that is breathtaking in its sweep and novelty.
The latest confrontation between the two adversaries took place on September 11, 2008, when President Chávez expelled the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in solidarity with Bolivia’s leader, Evo Morales, who had taken the same action shortly before. Nerves were further stressed among Washington officials when, as part of upcoming military exercises in the Caribbean, two supersonic Russian bombers landed in Venezuela to take part in scheduled maneuvers.
Due to the continuing rhetorical salvos being exchanged between Washington and Caracas, the Venezuelan military finds itself in an awkward position. Its unique position in the middle of the Chávez-Washington feud, denies it the possibility of a professional relationship with the U.S. Such a relationship, previously one of its most important, would provide it with military hardware, training, and invitations to Pentagon-sponsored ministerial gatherings, as well as attendance at the Fort Benning former School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
The Venezuela-Russia Relationship
For more than 5 years, President Chávez has been seeking the modernization of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (FAN). The military budget was increased by 46.04 percent from 2004 to 2006, positioning Venezuela atop the list of countries with the largest military investment in the region during that period. The Venezuelan armed forces have increased to nearly 129,150 members. The rearmament of the FAN can be seen as an evident move towards the reconstruction of the military potential of a country facing a threat from what the Venezuelan head of State calls the Asymmetrical War. Another part of Chávez’s strategy was the creation of a military reserve and a territorial guard in 2005, with an addition to the second section of the Organic Law of the Armed Forces (Ley Orgánica de las Fuerzas Armadas –LOFAN), clause which also increased the purchase of light weaponry, handing out approximately 2 million guns for street-to-street resistance in case the country came under attack.
The Caracas-Moscow relationship made international headlines in 2006 when Venezuela agreed to purchase military equipment for a total of approximately $3 billion from Russia (2.2 billion euros). Through this purchase, Venezuela acquired 24 Su-30MK2 multi-purpose fighters, 100,000 AK-103 rifles and more than 50 helicopters of various models. Chávez has been quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass as saying that only a strong military ‘can stop the imperia [the United States], which threatens our democracy.’
In addition, the management of Russia’s Izhevsk Manufacturing plant has reported that it will build two factories in Venezuela to manufacture Kalashnikov rifle-type AK-103s and the corresponding ammunition. An August 15, 2007 United Press International article maintains that ‘the AK-47, like the old U.S. Army Jeep and the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, exemplifies a weapons system design that never grows old because it is virtually impossible to improve upon it’. The goal is to have both plants completed by 2010.
Russia, the Arms Supplier
During Chávez’s June 2007 trip to Moscow, the Venezuelan president ordered the purchase of five Russian submarines to increase the interception capacity of the Venezuelan Navy. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Venezuela ordered five Varshavyanka-class submarines, also known as Kilo 636. Interfax explained that ‘the subs are powered with diesel fuel and equipped with six torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, 24 mines and eight surface-to-air missiles.’
Incoming reports estimate the purchase totaled anywhere from $1-3 billion. A July 9 2007 article by RusData Dialine-BizEkon News argued that the $3 billion sum is ‘closer to the mark because Russia will also have to build a submarine maintenance base in Venezuela, supply weapons and components, and train crews.’ The article praised the Kilo’s power, describing it as a ‘silent killer’ and explaining how it possesses ‘up-to-date Club-S cruise missiles which have a range of 7,500 nautical miles.’ The report explained that ‘the single-screw Kilo-class submarines are among the most silent in the world because the screw rotates more slowly; and all of their equipment have special noise-reduction systems.’
While the most important pillar of the Russo-Venezuelan relationship is perhaps its military component, Moscow is attempting to bring both nations closer through other means as well. For example, Russian Vice Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Venezuela and met with Chávez on September 16. Among the issues discussed, according to the Russian news agency Kommersant, was the possibility of partnerships between Russian oil companies (i.e. Gazprom, Lukoil) and Venezuela’s state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA. (PDVSA) Sechin, board chairman of state-controlled Rosneft, which is Russia’s largest oil company, declared during his trip that ‘it would be strange for Russia, which shares first place in global oil production with the Saudis, not to interact, say, with Venezuela, which holds fifth or sixth place.’
In July, Chávez declared that ‘if Russian armed forces would like to come to Venezuela, they will be welcomed warmly […] we will raise flags, beat drums and sing songs, because our allies will come.’ Two months later, on Wednesday September 10, two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 bombers landed at Venezuela’s airfield ‘Libertador,’ as part of the joint military war games that Caracas and Moscow have been holding in the last year. The Blackjacks, as NATO code-named for the long-range bombers, were expected to fly home on September 15, once the training mission is over. The bombers were escorted on their 13-hour flight to South America by a U.S. F-16 NATO fighter over Iceland, and over Norway, by two F-16s from the Norwegian Air Force, according to the Russian Air Force spokesman, Commander Vladimir Drik. The latter also mentioned that NATO has been monitoring Russian strategic bomber patrol flights. A Tupolev Tu-160 is capable of carrying 12 cruise missile Kh-55MS, code-named as AS-15 Kent. In another configuration is capable of carrying a 200kt nuclear warhead. The Russian Air Force Commander specified that the two bombers assigned to land in Venezuela were not carrying nuclear weapons at the time.
President Chávez is hoping to counter the United States influence in South America, by working to strengthen military ties with the prompt circumstance upon the arrival of the Russian bombers in Venezuela. On August 31, the Venezuelan leader acclaimed the rise of Russia as a super power, a status which has been pointedly underestimated for several years by the U.S. He stated that ‘Yankee hegemony is finished.’ It is evident that the events that were scheduled to take place in the northern region of South America are part of a provocative new geopolitical game, in which old enemies –the U.S. and Russia– are showing off their war gear, but with a new Latin American participant churning the waters between the historical foes.
As its arms’ purchases, it becomes important to analyze whether, Venezuela faces any external bona fide security threats, or if the Chávez government is becoming a growing threat for the stability of the region. To begin, without counting the Caribbean and Central American states, Venezuela borders three countries while extremely unlikely that any of the following scenarios would ever come to pass, the use of speculative war games can be a valuable and informative exercise.
A small country led by a tough leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana traditionally keeps to itself and mostly focuses its foreign relations on its CARICOM English-speaking neighbors. If anything, Guyana has more domestic problems than any interest to pose a security threat to Venezuela. The former British colony is still celebrating the death of notorious gang-leader Rondell ‘Fineman’ Rawlins. Rawlins was killed in a shootout in late August. He was regarded as Guyana’s most wanted fugitive since he went on the run in 2003; because he has been linked to 78 murders dating back to 2006, he had been tirelessly pursued.
Venezuela had a small run-in with Guyana in 2007. According to the handful of details that are publicly known, (provided by Georgetown) during that November, a contingent of 36 Venezuelan armed military personnel, led by an unidentified general, ‘entered into Guyana’s territory’ and proceeded to use military-type explosive devices to destroy two gold-mining dredges that allegedly were poaching on disputed Guyanese territory. According to the Guyanese side, the attack took place near Iguana Island on the Cuyuní River. It was never made clear whether the actions carried out by the Venezuelan unit were part of an initiative based on the discretion of the general in charge of the unit, or if the order rose through the chain-of-command up to Chávez.
The history of the Venezuelan-Guyanese territorial dispute can be traced back to the 1900s, when Guyana was known as British Guiana and ruled by the United Kingdom. Caracas claims, pressed for implementation of sovereignty over two thirds of Guyana’s total land mass of 83,000 square miles, mainly in the sprawling timber and mineral-rich Essequibo region. In spite of the November 2007 incident, an all-out war between the two countries remains unthinkable, particularly as Guyana cannot realistically stand up against Venezuela without the fear of a major defeat. For his part, Chávez would not attack first as he does not want his country to be seen as the aggressor over a decidedly weaker state, but one with strong regional connections.
Brazil, the Latin American Giant
Venezuela and Brazil, due to geographic realities, would find it exceedingly difficult to enter into a conflict with each other. Their common border is in the heart of the Amazon jungle, making major logistical operations as well as the use of armor, all but impossible. In any extremely unlikely game plan, should a war break out, it would be characterized mostly by infantry-led guerrilla-style stealth operations featuring ambushes and artillery and aerial maneuvers, as needed. Quite literally, both navies would need to pass three countries, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana (or France) just to reach each other’s territories.
Aside from both striving to become South America’s newest military powerhouse, the countries are unlikely to engage in a confrontation, at least in this generation. Underscoring this point, both have carried out joint military exercises which can be interpreted as confidence-building measures. As recently as August 2008, Brazil and Venezuela executed Operation VENBRA 5, involving 260 soldiers from the FAB and 140 from the Venezuelan Air Force (ANV). This VENBRA operation featured joint training and simulation exercises to improve cooperation between both air forces in order to have the capacity to combat illicit aircraft flights. The exercises took place in the Venezuelan Bolivar and Brazilian Roraima border regions. In addition, the Venezuelan and Brazilian leaders joined together to set up the South American Defense Council, bringing the two countries closer in security and defense matters.
Realistically, Colombia is the one regional country with which Venezuela could conceivably engage in an armed confrontation on a practical basis and with a reasonable expectation of victory on both sides. With the strong ties that President Álvaro Uribe has with the White House and the likely superiority in terms of the depth of experience and integration of technology by the Colombian armed forces makes Venezuela no easy match for Colombia. Nevertheless, the two countries came perilously close to military confrontation during the recent Ecuadorian crisis, when the Colombian Armed Forces bombed a secret FARC camp just within the Ecuadorian border. Chávez sent some of his tanks to Venezuela’s border with Colombia, as a sign of solidarity with his ally, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. These events resulted in major disclosures that came from several captured laptop computers, which fell into the hands of Colombian intelligence officers causing heightened tensions between the two countries. Accusations of ties between the Chávez’ administration and the leftist FARC brought on the worst diplomatic crisis involving the two countries in the last ten years, abruptly affecting Venezuela’s food marketplace and causing exchanges between Uribe and Chávez. In February, Chávez declared that, ‘lamentably in Colombia the oligarchy governs [..] it’s possible that the Colombian government could lend itself to a military action against Venezuela.’ Despite the threatening signs, both leaders met on July 11 of this year in Paraguaná, Venezuela to put an end to the crisis. However, it is unknown how long this diplomatic peace arrangement between two such volatile figures will hold.
When Venezuela announced that it would carry out joint military exercises with Russia in the Caribbean, Colombia’s reaction was predictable as well as immediate. On September 10, former Colombian Minister of Defense, Marta Lucía Ramírez, alleged that the joint military maneuvers between Russia and Venezuela could put at risk the region’s stability stating that, ‘Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are being relocated to Andean and Caribbean scenarios.’ Her statement was based on Chávez’s strong reaction upon learning of the possibility of the installation of a U.S.-Colombian military base. The Venezuelan leader threatened to launch a strong military reaction if this option became a reality. The former government official added that her country should exhort the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to take immediate action on this matter.
Nevertheless, any form of conflict between Colombia and Venezuela seems all but impossible, due to the profound symbiotic relationship, which is both strategic and commercial, in which the two countries are involved. Among other factors, trade is a key link tying the two states together. Neither government can afford putting a multi-billion dollar trade partnership at risk. In addition, from a strictly security point of view, for decades Colombia has fought a domestic insurgency in the form of the FARC, ELN and the drug cartels. Most of its troops have been used for domestic operations, more than for protecting the country from external threats. If there were a war, Venezuela would have to be the instigator, but this would go against Chávez’ Bolivarian dreams of regional unity, and the fact that the regional organizations in which Venezuela is involved would hardly sanction it.
The overall feeling is that South America is certainly en-route to a new arms race, as not only Venezuela, but also countries like Brazil and Chile are stepping up their arms purchases. The current security situation in the region will be one of the first tests for UNASUR and its recently created security agency, the Southern Defense Council (CSD), to see if they can control the situation and prevent unnecessary and potentially dangerous escalations from occurring.
Reality and Self-Perception, Chávez style
Hugo Chávez has almost made it a hobby to look for ways to embitter his country’s relationship with Washington, as well as that of any country that he perceives as allied to the U.S. or that differs from Venezuela in political ideology and points of view.
Chávez’s profound animosity for the current U.S. administration plays a key rule in the nature of the U.S.-Venezuela relationship. For starters, Chávez strives to end Washington’s interventions in the affairs of other countries through the application of either hard or soft power. In addition, Chávez’s pseudo-Marxist ideology, leftist rhetoric and his goal of a ‘21st Century Socialism’ clashes with the U.S.’s highly conventional core belief in orthodox capitalism and its historical actions that make it play the role of the private sector’s chief apostle. Anti-Washington feelings were intensified by allegations that Washington supported the April 2002 coup against Chávez, removing him from office for approximately 48 hours. The fact that he managed to return to power, with the backing of most of the country’s population (as well as with the support of the country’s major military officers), gave Chávez the probably mistaken feeling that the citizens would support him irrespective of the path that he would lead them down.
On a number of occasions, Chávez has labeled U.S. President George W. Bush as ‘the devil’ and lately addressed an audience of supporters where he referred to the U.S. administration as ‘Yankees de mierda,’ in a speech that was being broadcast nationwide. This approach raised eyebrows and left no room for the application of protocol or the use of civility that a major political figure like Chávez would be expected to have.
The unfolding of Venezuela-Russian relations is an issue that will need to be more closely examined. It might be exceedingly unwise for Chávez to begin regarding Russia as a trustworthy ally. Venezuela has gone to great lengths to establish close ties with the Russian government, not only through military purchases involving billions of dollars, but also with diplomatic initiatives like recognizing the Georgian breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia. In the upcoming weeks, Chávez is scheduled to visit Russia once again, making this his sixth visit to that country, the second during this year. However, it remains to be seen how far Moscow will go in investing resources and efforts to protect its new beachhead in South America.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Raylsiyaly Rivero and COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez
September 18th, 2008