Venezuela: Long on weapons, short on accountability
Venezuela has been a major arms purchaser from Russia, China and other suppliers in the last five years.
CARACAS, Venezuela, Wednesday March 23, 2011 (By Humberto Márquez) - Venezuela has been a major arms purchaser from Russia, China and other suppliers in the last five years, but has failed to acquire the necessary competence to deal with hypothetical conflicts, says a non-governmental organisation specialised in security and defence.
This oil-producing country is one of the "big four" arms buyers in the region, along with Brazil, Colombia and Chile. "Venezuela has to maintain and renew obsolete weapons systems," Rocío San Miguel, head of Citizen Control for Security, Defence and the Armed Forces, told IPS.
To this end, the country may have spent or committed between 12 billion and 15 billion dollars in the period 2005-2010. Purchases and orders from Russia alone have amounted to some 8.5 billion dollars, according to San Miguel.
Latin America bought 51.8 billion dollars' worth of arms in 2009, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) recorded defence expenditure of over 58 billion dollars for the region in the same year.
"What right does Latin America have to complain about its poverty, when it spends nearly 60 billion dollars on weapons and soldiers?" said 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010) last year in a speech to the summit meeting of the Rio Group, a Latin American mechanism of political consultation and coordination.
Aside from the amount spent and whether or not it is part of an arms race, Venezuela's arms purchases "are tarnished by lack of transparency, lack of democratic oversight by parliament and the absence of consensus on strategic defence questions, all of which are mandated by the 1999 constitution," said San Miguel.
The constitution provides for a National Defence Council, made up of high-level officials, to set the country's "strategic direction," and establishes the principle of "co-responsibility" between the armed forces and civil society.
This month the opposition in parliament sought to call Defence Minister General Carlos Mata to answer questions about arms acquisitions and other military issues, but the initiative was blocked by the lawmakers of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), who have a majority in Congress.
Ministers with responsibility for political and economic areas did appear in parliament to account for their actions, but they did not answer lawmakers' questions about military spending.
Among the weapons systems bought in the last five years from suppliers in 14 countries for the 117,000 members of the armed forces in Venezuela, more than 30 were purchased from Russia and half a dozen from China.
Purchases and orders from Moscow included 100,000 Kalashnikov 103 and 104 assault rifles, rifle and munitions factories, 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles, 36 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft, 48 Mi-17 multi-purpose helicopters, 10 Mi-35 attack helicopters and five transport helicopters.
Also, 1,000 85mm RPG anti-tank rocket launchers, 1,000 IGLA portable anti-aircraft missile launchers, 92 medium T-52 tanks and 137 BMP and BTR infantry combat vehicles were bought. Acquisition of cannon, mortar, rocket and missile launcher systems have been announced, as well as submarines, more combat helicopters and amphibious aircraft.
China supplied Venezuela with 25 K8 tactical training planes, 10 long-range mobile radar systems, and field and communications equipment. The acquisition of J-10 fighter planes has been announced.
Anti-riot trucks and light aircraft were also bought from Austria, command centres and electronic warfare control systems from Belarus, and pistols from Brazil. Anti-riot equipment, ships and launches are being ordered from Spain, Cessna planes from the United States, gunpowder factories from Iran and naval cannons from Italy.
Hovercrafts have been ordered from the U.K., RBS-70 portable missile systems from Sweden (before the Swedish government imposed an arms embargo on Venezuela in 2006), and naval anti-aircraft systems from Switzerland.
Venezuela's traditional strategy has been to maintain diversified sources for military procurement.
But left-wing President Hugo Chávez has changed the purchasing pattern, preferring China and Russia to traditional suppliers like the United States, France and Israel, as part of what he calls a new "multi-polar" geopolitical strategy.
In San Miguel's view, "the most serious issue is the lack of transparency in arms purchases, the amounts spent and the payments made, and the inconsistency between these acquisitions and the defence concept favoured by the present government: a prolonged people's war."
She said the branches of the armed forces (army, air force, navy and national guard) compete for arms purchases, and the army, where Chávez served until 1992, when as a lieutenant colonel he headed a failed military coup, nearly always wins. "Dysfunctional military purchases and allocations, translated into seriously questioned operational capacity, could have a historic cost if the nation turns out to be incapable, in spite of its substantial oil revenues, to provide itself with an adequate defence system," San Miguel said.
In her view, for Venezuela's traditional conflict hypotheses - such as a possible war with neighbouring civil war-torn Colombia - the operational capacity of the armed forces and its relative combat power are at a low ebb.
The expert stressed that "although Venezuela has shaken hands with (Colombian President Juan Manuel) Santos, the doctrine and discourse espoused by many pro-government spokespersons continues to be that the empire, the United States, can attack us through a third country, in this case Colombia.
"Loss of operational capacity is associated with the new paradigm for our armed forces: the deprofessionalisation of its ranks, with many officers seeking to resign, and its role as the armed wing of the revolution led by President Chávez," said San Miguel.
Chávez, she said, "makes more than 90 percent of the decisions in the armed forces, and aided and abetted by the pro-government majority in the legislature, he evades the parliamentary control of military policy that is characteristic of democratic systems."
In contrast to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's action in January, the Venezuelan president did not announce measures to reduce or postpone military purchases due to the floods affecting the country, or the fall in oil revenues on which the economy depends. (IPS)
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