Wednesday, February 16, 2005

100,000 guns

I wrote a little last year about the US military build-up against Venezuela, and the low-level war in the Venezuelan countryside between landlords and other elements of the ruling class (an imprecise term here, I know, but this is a hurried post, so forgive me) and the Chavez government and its supporters.

A series of events over the past couple of months have increased tensions between Venezuela, the US, and the US's leading ally in South America, Colombia. From the White House perspective, the key aggravation seems to have been a trip by Chavez to China, where an oil deal likely to be very injurious to the US was discussed. Chavez is now openly talking of diverting oil exports from the US, and the recent kidnapping of a Colombian guerrilla leader from Venezuela - an operation that took place with the consent of some elements of Chavez's own army - appears to have sharpened his resolve.

Many Venezuelans believe that the US is trying to start a war between their country and Colombia. It is certainly true that the US has outfitted the Colombian armed forces handsomely in recent years - under the guise of fighting 'narcoterrorism' it has supplied Black Hawk choppers, and facilitated the Uribe government's purchase of large numbers of tanks, weapons not noted for their usefulness in counter-insurgency fighting. Chavez responded to this military build-up by buying his own choppers from Russia. At the same time, he promised to revolutionise the armed forces, and involve the civilian population more closely in the defence of the country. Now Chavez is buying 100,000 AK 47s from Russia, saying they are intended for the use of the Army Reserve. It is certainly true that there are not anywhere enough soldiers in the conventional armed forces to use such a number of guns.

Is Chavez preparing to do what Allende would not do, and arm his own supporters against counter-revolution? Such a step could have fateful consequences - it would outrage more conservative parts of the army, who would see the base of their power eroded, and it would embolden the militants who have been pushing Chavez's government leftwards over the past few months (consider, for instance, the victory of the Venepal workers' demand for nationalisation of their factory under workers' control).

Needless to say, the White House is unimpressed:

The Bush administration has lodged a formal protest with Russia for agreeing to provide the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more than 100,000 AK-47 rifles that U.S. officials believe could be used to aid left-wing uprisings in Latin America.

The administration in December sent a secret letter of protest (formally called a demarche) to the Russian Embassy in Washington, according to senior U.S. officials. The officials say the warning was followed up by concerns expressed directly to the Russian defense and foreign ministers...(read the rest, if you can stomach the Cold War rhetoric, at the Washington Times).


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