U.S.-Russia diplomacy is currently dominated by issues such as Iran, missile defense, and the post-Soviet republics. But the Obama administration must not ignore Moscow's role in facilitating the dangerous Venezuelan arms buildup and the nuclear ambitions of Hugo Chávez.
On September 13, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announced triumphantly that Russia had agreed to extend his government a $2.2 billion credit line for the purchase of sophisticated military hardware, including tanks, missiles, and air-defense systems. Chávez insisted that these arms purchases "are necessary for our national defense." But U.S. officials think otherwise--and with good reason. "What they are looking to purchase and what they are purchasing outpaces all other countries in South America," State Department spokesmen Ian Kelly said of the Venezuelans on September 14. "We're concerned about an arms race in the region." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed these comments a day later.
Venezuela's arms buildup is indeed threatening to fuel a regional arms race--and no foreign country has done more to make that arms buildup possible than Russia. In recent years, Caracas and Moscow have signed arms deals worth more than $5 billion. Russian strategic analyst Ruslan Pukhov has predicted that over the next decade, Venezuela may purchase another $5 billion worth of Russian arms. Meanwhile, in June 2008, the two countries agreed to create a bi-national bank with $4 billion worth of starting capital. They have also signed several energy pacts, including a nuclear-cooperation accord. Venezuelan officials recently confirmed that their country is receiving assistance from both Russia and Iran as it seeks to locate uranium deposits. (The South American nation is believed to have massive untapped uranium reserves.)
In December 2008, Venezuelan and Russian warships--including a Russian nuclear cruiser--held joint military exercises in the Caribbean. The Guardian noted that these exercises represented "Moscow's first show of naval force in the region since the Cold War." Speaking of the Cold War, the Russian warships that participated in the December 2008 naval maneuvers paid visit to Cuba that same month. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has been keen to strengthen military ties with the Raúl Castro regime. Raúl, for his part, has always been an admirer of the Russian armed forces.
Given the authoritarian nature of the Medvedev-Putin government and its aggressive push to reestablish Russia as a world power, we should be wary of the Kremlin's renewed interest in Latin America and its military links with Venezuela and Cuba. In mid-September, Russia's top military official, General Nikolai Makarov, traveled to the Communist island and met with his Cuban counterpart, General lvaro López Miera. Other senior Russian officials who have visited Cuba this year include Igor Sechin, a deputy prime minister, and Nikolai Patrushev, chief of the Russian Security Council. According to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, Russian military sources have suggested that Moscow may decide to "resume operations" at its former electronic-espionage facility in Lourdes (a town near Havana), a Cold War-era installation that was closed in 2001, and also "use airbases in Cuba for refueling of strategic aircraft."
Of course, Cuba is no longer the main destabilizing force in Latin America; Venezuela has assumed that role. Under Chávez, the "Bolivarian Republic" has undermined Latin democracies, supported terrorist groups, and embraced terror-sponsoring regimes such as Iran and Syria. This is why the Russia-Venezuela relationship is so worrisome. Thanks to his deals with Moscow, Chávez has been stockpiling modern fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, missiles, anti-aircraft systems, and tens of thousands of Kalashnikov submachine guns. There is a very real possibility that some of these weapons will wind up in the hands of terrorists. It is now undeniable that the Chávez government has provided material support to the FARC terrorists in Colombia. This past July, Colombian military forces raided a FARC camp and found Venezuelan anti-tank rocket launchers. There is also persuasive evidence that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization, has established a presence in Venezuela. Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department accused the Chávez regime of "employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers."
Chávez is a leftist, but also a militarist--a self styled caudillo similar to prior Latin American despots. He has repeatedly threatened the conservative, pro-U.S. government in Bogotá, and has bitterly denounced Washington's plans to expand U.S. military activities in Colombia. His stockpiling of advanced weaponry poses a very real threat to regional stability, and it would not be happening without Moscow's assistance. Thanks to Russian arms sales, Chávez is now in a stronger position to consolidate his dictatorship at home and provide military support to anti-democratic, pro-Chávez governments and terrorist groups elsewhere in Latin America.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is Senior Fellow and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.