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Venezuela and the arms trade

By Rafael Uzcátegui
In a period of just 10 years between 1998 and 2007, Venezuela rose from 56th to 24th place in the world ranking of buyers of conventional arms. These data were recently published by the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm (SIPRI). For the year 2007, according to SIPRI, Venezuela was the largest buyer of military equipment to Latin America - occupying ninth place worldwide, 40 places above Colombia in the world ranking- and spending only $4 million less than Israel, for a total of $887 million dollars. Since 1998 the Latin American country has been ruled by President Hugo Chávez, counting for its arms race with the greatest economic boom experienced by the nation in the last 3 decades, proceeds from high oil prices, and an aggressive neo-liberal policy of tax collection. The USA - despite the public display of hostility between the two governments - remains Venezuela's main trading partner, yet spending on arms is justified by updating the military infrastructure against an imminent "imperialist invasion." Paradoxically, 96% of the war equipment come from Russia, whose transfers are promoted by the Bolivarian government as "breaking the blockade imposed by imperialism against Venezuela." In the last decade, Venezuela has spent US$1,708 million on conventional weapons. To this figure should be added the acquisition of war ships ($300 million for 66 units), assault rifles AK-103 ($ 54 million for 100,000 units) and various contracts of technology transfer. The Russian arms industry's own estimates reveal that total arms transfers to the Caribbean country amount to US$ 4,000 million. However in October 2007 Serguéi Ladiguin, representative of the company Rosoboronexport, said he expected Venezuelan purchases to double or triple. Ladiguin explained that the two countries were preparing new contracts for the supply of ships, warplanes and helicopter, as well as various types of weaponry for the Army. The other countries that Venezuela purchases arms from are China and Spain. Among the equipment acquired by the Chávez government are SU-30MK and MiG-29, Mi-17 fighter aircraft and Mi35 and Mi-36 helicopters,as well as frigates and troop transport planes. Rosoboronexport, the Russian state exporter, announced the forthcoming installation of three military factories - for rifles, ammunition and for repairing helicopters. This arms race is part of a growing militarization process experienced by the Venezuelan society, which includes the use of military personnel at different levels of government and the incorporation of civilians as members of the so-called "reserve" for carrying out work of security, defence and intelligence.