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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Arms Races on the Periphery 

Here's some unpleasant news from the Financial Times:
Venezuela has embarked on a weapons procurement programme to gain the advantage in its military balance with neighbouring Colombia, edging the two countries towards an arms race...

Four European companies [sic]- Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK - are competing in a tender for 200 armoured and tactical vehicles, in a deal estimated to be worth about $80m.

A delivery of missiles, of unspecified type, is due to be flown into Venezuela from Israel next week, according to documentation seen by the Financial Times.

Venezuela's procurement plan is taking place amid a sharp increase in tensions with Colombia over the capture earlier this month of more than 100 supposedly Colombian paramilitary fighters.

Mr Chávez, who is resisting an opposition drive to secure a recall vote on his rule, claims that the "mercenaries" were part of an "invasion" force hired by domestic opponents with links to Colombia and the US.

Opponents have dismissed the incident as a government pretext to round up dissident military officers, several of whom have been arrested in recent days.

Either way, Mr Chávez's procurement plans are likely further to unsettle relations between Venezuela's Cuban-backed government and the US-supported administration of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe.

"Fears of a Colombian 'invasion' are unfounded and have more to do with the paranoia of the Venezuelan government," said Carlos Malamud, senior Latin America analyst at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid. "But to brandish the ghost of an invasion is an excellent excuse to justify a procurement process."
I can't claim to have any insight into Chávez's thought processes on this, nor do I have any handle on the Colombia/FARC conflict. The "paranoia" and "internal politics" explanations both sound quite plausible to me (and are hardly mutually exclusive).

But I do know that even more instability in Venezuela, one of the top four sources of imported US oil, is not something to be happy about. I'm concerned that the Bush administration's behavior has convinced such a large chunk of the world audience (including Mr. Chávez) that a self-interested, glutton-for-oil America is completely untrustworthy when it comes to foreign policy with oil exporting states. And I wonder whether a US attempt to defuse the tensions would have been more viable if we had not invaded Iraq and seemingly blown all credibility out of "benevolent hegemon" beliefs outside DC.

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