Something Brewing in Venezuela

January 2010

Lieutenant Colonel Phillip R. Cuccia

Strategic Studies Institute

Addressing a regional diplomatic-military problem is made all the more

complicated when the region is not at the forefront of U.S. global strategic interests.

Such a region simply does not get the attention that it deserves. I fear that may be what

is happening now with South America in general and Venezuela in particular.

On May 15, 2006, the U.S. State Department announced the initiation of an arms

embargo against Venezuela because it was not cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism

efforts. While the focal point of U.S. foreign policy during 2006 was Iraq, the actions

taken by Venezuela, which caused the embargo, did not self correct. Unfortunately, and

logically, dialog between the U.S. and Venezuela deteriorated. Currently, the U.S. focus

has shifted to Afghanistan and the political decisions being made by the Venezuelan

leadership continue to further exacerbate U.S.-Venezuelan foreign relations.

Yet this regional problem in South America is tied to the U.S. focus in the Middle

East—primarily to the country that sits right between Iraq and Afghanistan—Iran. Since

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Iran has inaugurated six new

South American embassies in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and

Uruguay, adding to Iran’s preexisting embassies in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico,

and Venezuela. Some analysts propose that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has

encouraged this Iranian expansion. Indeed, Iranian officials have signed many

economic and political agreements with Chávez, and Iran has invested in Venezuelan

industry.

Two years ago, weekly flights from Iran began arriving in Caracas with rather lax

controls, which caused U.S. officials to raise objections. The U.S. Treasury put sanctions

on an Iranian-owned bank, which maintains an office in Caracas, which allegedly

helped Iran avoid sanctions on its nuclear program. In addition, at least one group on

the U.S. terrorism-sponsor list, the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, raises funds in

South America. Chávez is flirting just a little too much with Iran. His willingness to

create closer ties with Iran does not bode well for future U.S.-Venezuelan dialog.

Chávez’s silencing of his political adversaries and pushing to become dominant in

South America is one thing, but trying to score political alliances across the Atlantic

with Iran is another.

When I read articles about such developments I wonder if we as U.S. citizens still

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believe in the basic tenets of the Monroe Doctrine. If clever, one would say: Yeah we do,

but it does not apply—Monroe made it a point that he did not want European

governments to interfere with states in the Americas. Regardless of where the foreign

interference comes from, the point is this: Chávez continues to make agreements with

Iran, Russia, and China. Chávez stated on September 16, 2009, that Venezuela signed a

3-year $16 billion investment deal with China to raise oil output by several hundred

thousand barrels per day (bpd) in Venezuela’s Orinoco belt. Chavez also stated that the

new agreement, in conjunction with a deal struck with Russia, would raise output by

900,000 bpd.

But the deals concern more than just oil and industry investments. On December 7,

2009, Chávez stated that Venezuela has received thousands of Russian-made missiles

and rocket launchers as part of his government’s military preparations for a possible

armed conflict with Colombia. Chávez went on to argue that Colombia and the U.S. are

plotting a military offensive against Venezuela and that he was acquiring more

weapons as a precaution. He also said that Russian tanks, including T-72s would be

arriving to strengthen his armored divisions. Venezuela has bought more than $4

billion worth of Russian military equipment since 2005. This includes 24 Sukhoi fighter

jets and dozens of attack helicopters. To facilitate the sales, Russia opened a $2.2 billion

credit line for Chávez to purchase more arms.

Now I do not want to posit that the sky is falling and that Venezuela is becoming a

major military threat to the United States in our own back yard. Venezuela has a long

way to go before it catches up with Brazil’s defense expenditures. Chávez and company

have an even longer way to go before it could match the might of the U.S. military but

Venezuela could certainly make a lot of trouble for us if it starts a major war in the

region. It would undoubtedly result in U.S. intervention at some level. If that level of

intervention would involve a significant number of U.S. forces to be deployed to South

America then that would have a significant impact on our global strategy, especially in

light of our refocused effort on Afghanistan to include the commitment for increased

force levels there.

The arms embargo against Venezuela does not seem to be as effective as intended.

Venezuela is buying weapons from Russia and threatening war with Colombia. It is

reasonable to assume that the U.S. will not lift the arms embargo for many reasons. A

whole of government approach is needed to address the regional diplomatic-military

problem. But until diplomatic channels can start making headway with dialog,

deterrence to war is needed. Active and visible deterrence however would lead to even

fewer dialogs and the cycle would continue to deteriorate. Perhaps the U.S. should

reconsider the efficacy of the embargo.

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The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official

policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This opinion piece is cleared for public release; distribution is unlimited.

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