08 02 2011

Hugo is buying weapons. Should we be worried?

Everybody has probably heard about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez' weapon deals. Tanks and anti-air missiles from Russia, warships from Spain, training jets from China, air defence systems from Belarus. The US has expressed its concern that Venezuela is provoking an arms race in South America. Its actions could endanger regional stability the US says. Really? Venezuela is number 5 in Latin America in military spending, both in absolute terms and as percentage of GDP. The Latin American leaders in military spending are two close US allies: Colombia and Chile, which in relative terms spend almost three times what Venezuela does.

Venezuela has announced big military deals during the last couple of years. Among the more spectacular was a deal in 2007 to buy Russian Sukhoi fighter jets to substitute the fleet of American produced F-16, grounded because the US has cut off the supply of spare parts. The Sukhois were apparently not the first choice, but the US blocked the sale of advanced fighters from Brazil (as they include US produced parts) and a deal with Israel to modernise the ageing F-16. Hugo Chávez, who never misses the chance to make a stunt, said in 2006 he was considering selling these useless F-16 to Iran, causing alarm in Washington. Other important deals are coastal patrol boats from Spain, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks from Russia, and trainer aircrafts from China. Most Western companies, including Swedish SAAB, are by now unable to sell arms to Venezuela because of an arms ban imposed by the US.

“The United States fears recent weapons purchases by Venezuela could fuel an arms race in South America”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2009, according to CNN. “They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region,” she added. In April 2010 a State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley Monday, said that while Russia and Venezuela have the right to pursue relations, the United States is hard-pressed to see what legitimate defence needs Venezuela has for the equipment.

It seems Mrs. Clinton and the State Department haven't done their homework. Venezuela is actually far from the main military spender in the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, considered an authority in the area, Venezuela was in 2009 a distant number 5, and its military expenditures went down with around 25% in compared to 2008, while that of most of the leading spenders increased.

Neighbour and close US-ally, Colombia, where the US has access to seven bases and troops deployed, spends almost three times more than Venezuela. Tiny Chile with a population little more than half that of Venezuela, spends almost double the amount of Venezuela.

The figures are not much different when we look at military spending as percentage of GDP. Brazil drops to number 4 on the list, which is now headed by Colombia and Chile.

All four main spenders are close US allies. In military terms, the Latin American branch of the axis of the evil (Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Bolivia) is insignificant.

Tiny Denmark with a population less than a fifth of Venezuela, spends around the same as a percentage of GDP (1.3-1.4%), but in absolute terms the Danish military budget is around 20% higher.

Perhaps time for Mrs. Clinton and her collaborators to grab a calculator?

Many third world countries are presently rethinking their defence strategy after seeing in Iraq how useless conventional weaponry is when faced with a full scale attack by the US military. This has lead many countries to consider “asymmetric warfare”, where they don't try to match the (bigger) attacking countries but instead aim at making the attack as costly as possible. This probably explains the priority given by the Venezuelans to air defence systems, particularly super mobile land-to-air missiles.

But why buy vulnerable tanks and fighter jets? The explanation seems to be fear for a more conventional attack on the Venezuelan oilfields from Colombia, as the main oil fields happen to be very close to the Colombian border. And Venezuela happens to sit on one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, making it an attempting target. Even if Fidel Castro recently said he found it unlikely that Colombia would attack – or let itself be used to attack Venezuela (“because it is not interested, it can't, it doesn't want to, and it knows that the consequences would be disastrous”), others are not so sure.



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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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