World Politics Watch Exclusive
MIAMI -- Venezuela is beefing up its military capabilities by land, sea and air in preparation for what one senior official called a possible "asymmetrical conflict" with the United States.
By characterizing a warfare scenario with the United States as "asymmetrical," the ambassador was acknowledging the distinct firepower and personnel advantage of the United States, though he noted his country was preparing itself for defense nonetheless.
"We have simply been trying to upgrade our military equipment and maintain our defense while preserving balance in the hemisphere," said Alvarez, who said that Venezuela's Latin American neighbors need not concern themselves with the country's recent efforts to bolster its armaments.
The ambassador's remarks follow a recent report that Venezuela's latest arms improvement will focus on the country's navy, which is said to be interested in purchasing nine additional submarines.
Having already spent $3.4 billion on Russian arms, including assault rifles and fighter jets, the Venezuelan Navy is planning to spend $3 billion more to create the largest submarine fleet in the region by 2012, according to Venezuelan Navy Vice Adm. Armando Laguna.
Recently added to the defense spending wish list of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were Russian anti-aircraft missiles, at a total cost of $290 million.
A recent Pentagon report estimated that Venezuela had spent more like $4.3 billion since 2005 alone, more than countries like Iran, Pakistan and even China. Venezuela is also pursuing an estimated $2 billion worth of military transport ships and aircraft from Spain.
However, the deal was delayed last year when the United States objected to the sale, enforcing a policy that foreign companies must seek Washington's approval when selling U.S.-made military technology.
Venezuela is currently trying to work out a deal with Spain to swap out the U.S. parts in the 10 aircraft from Spanish company EADS-CASA and eight boats.
Though Chavez officials maintain the recent efforts to bolster the country's military capabilities are essential, some consider the expenditure a waste of revenue that could be used to alleviate the strain of chronic poverty in Venezuela.
But Chavez is keen on ramping up his country's defenses using a windfall of petroleum dollars that have filled state coffers in recent years. Having already spent a significant portion of that money on education and health programs for Venezuela's impoverished, the leftist leader has set his sights on becoming the continent's military superpower.
The latest effort in procuring new military capabilities involves the acquisition of a fleet of submarines to protect Venezuela's interest in its exclusive economic zone, which Caracas maintains consists of a large portion of the Caribbean.
Protecting an area that large would require far more vessels than the two German submarines -- both over 30 years old -- the Venezuelan military currently employs. The country's navy is reportedly keen on purchasing nine additional submarines, for a total of 11 vessels. The additions would give Venezuela the largest submarine fleet in Latin America, surpassing those maintained by neighboring Brazil and Chile.
The submarines will be the "diesel-electric variety," said Laguna in a recent communiqué, quoted earlier this month by Brazil's leading newspaper, Estado de Sao Paulo, and will weigh in at approximately 1,750 metric tons apiece. The Venezuelan Navy is currently considering bids from German, France and Russia, the odds-on favorite, for the new vessel contracts.
Venezuela has already done billions of dollars in business with Russia, purchasing 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 24 Sukhoi-30 fighters and about 35 helicopters. Now Caracas has its sights set on buying Moscow's air defense missiles, known as the Tor-M1 system, which consists of eight missiles in a battery mounted to a launch vehicle. The system can reportedly target objects up to 2,000 ft and has a range of several miles.
The missiles would be for "air defense" only, said a Venezuelan military official last month in an interview with the Associated Press, a notion that comports with Chavez's warning of a possible U.S. invasion. The Bush administration repeatedly denies it has any such designs on Venezuela.
But Washington has questioned Chavez's motives for ramping up his military and expressed concerns that the Russian assault rifles could wind up in the hands of leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia or be used to further the Venezuelan leader's socialist agenda in the region.
"I can see why Chavez wants to militarize Venezuela. . . . He's a military man just like Bolivar was a military man," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, referring to the South American Gen. Simon Bolivar, a Chavez hero who fought for and won the independence of several Latin American nations from Spain during the 19th century.
That Chavez sees himself as a modern-day version of Bolivar, readying his country to wage war against U.S. oppressors, is what inspired him to fortify Venezuela's defenses for a battle he claims Washington is already planning, noted Pike.
Waging war with the U.S. however "would be a foolish thing to do," he said, noting Venezuela has too much to lose economically from even a minor skirmish with the United Statres, Venezuela's largest petroleum customer.
"Venezuela's arms build up is totally unnecessary on so many levels," agreed Adam Isacson, director the Center for International Policy, noting that Venezuela still has a poverty rate near 50 percent while the country spends billions of dollars on arms.
"Of course Venezuela can do whatever they want with their money . . . but they just don't need that right now."
Carmen Gentile is a freelance journalist based in Miami.