CARACAS – The Venezuelan army plans to acquire 40 Russian helicopters within the next few months in the first step towards a new "strategic alliance" with Moscow promoted by President Hugo Chávez, who is further marking his distance from Washington.
The deal was agreed this week in the Russian capital by Vice President José Vicente Rangel, a veteran politician of the Venezuelan left, and army commander General Raúl Baduel as part of business and bilateral economic and technological cooperation accords worth around $1 billion.
Russian companies also announced their interest in investing $500 million in an alumina plant alumina is used to produced aluminum in southeastern Venezuela, and in investing capital and technology in joint ventures in the oil and natural gas industry.
According to Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Carlos Mendoza, Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Venezuela in late November.
The helicopters will reduce the Venezuelan government’s reliance on U.S. weaponry and technology. They will be deployed along the country’s western border with Colombia, whose right-wing government is a staunch ally of the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, who has sent hundreds of military advisers to back Colombia’s fight against leftist insurgents.
"I still have doubts as to whether the sale of the helicopters will actually go through, especially if we’re talking about gunship helicopters or helicopters that can be fitted with missiles, because Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s respect for the U.S. superpower’s areas of influence," Carlos Romero, a professor of graduate studies in international relations at the Central University in Caracas, told IPS.
Before heading to Moscow this week, Rangel said the helicopters would be basically used as backup for patrols along the border. Last month, irregular combatants from Colombia, who have still not been identified, crossed into Venezuela and killed five Venezuelan soldiers and an oil company engineer.
The helicopters would also be used for civil defense in emergencies and disasters, and to fight forest fires, the vice president added.
Political analyst Alberto Garrido at the University of Los Andes in southwestern Venezuela told IPS that "the purchase of arms from Russia forms part of Chávez’s long-term project, which envisions his Bolivarian social revolution catching on in the rest of South America to counter U.S. hegemonic designs, whose military vanguard is in Colombia."
Another local academic, Aníbal Romero at the Simón Bolívar University, cited rumors according to which Venezuela may try to acquire MiG-29 combat planes and light arms from the Ukraine after purchasing the Mi-26 helicopters. In his view, that could open the doors to military cooperation between Venezuela and Cuba, which uses those weapons systems.
"I don’t think our officers will learn Russian quickly, to read the manuals and train with the new weaponry. That task will undoubtedly fall to the Cubans," said Aníbal Romero, who believes "the [Chávez] regime is taking advantage of the Yanqui [U.S.] shortsightedness and insatiable appetite for oil."
But Rangel noted that the helicopters that Venezuela plans to buy are already used by other countries in the region, like Mexico, Peru and even Colombia.
Garrido pointed out that the left-leaning Chávez has repeatedly underlined Venezuela’s neutrality with respect to Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict.
"No one should come and try to win us over as allies for any war. We will only be allies for peace," the president said during a visit to the border shortly after the September incident in which the soldiers and engineer were killed when armed attackers ambushed a PDVSA (Venezuela’s oil monopoly) inspection team in Venezuelan territory.
Colombia’s ministers of the interior and defense, Sabas Pretelt and Jorge Uribe, have urged Caracas to cooperate closely with Bogota to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group, which the Colombian government blames for the September attack.
This week, the head of the U.S. army Southern Command, General James Hill, complained on a visit to Bogota of Venezuela’s lack of support for Colombia’s civil war.
Hill said Colombia’s armed conflict was not only that country’s business, but also a concern for all of its neighbors, who should all cooperate. He added that Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Panama understood that, and said he hoped Venezuela would one day realize it as well.
By contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a visit to Brazil this week that "We still have differences of opinion, of course. . . . But we’re looking for ways to cooperate" with Caracas.
Chávez has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting the Venezuelan opposition alliance in its attempt to remove him from power in a short-lived April 2002 coup d’etat.
But Powell said in a news briefing that despite Chávez’s rhetoric, Venezuela is a reliable oil supplier and the Bush administration has not ruled out the possibility of improving bilateral relations.
In Moscow, Rangel welcomed Powell’s overture, stating that "the differences between us are political, and political issues are resolved by talking."
"We also want to have excellent relations with the United States," said the vice president, who added that his government is willing to "reformulate our policy . . . as long as Washington recognizes that Venezuela is an absolutely sovereign, free and independent country which enjoys democracy and constitutional stability."
Venezuela’s status as the world’s fifth largest oil producer, and the fact that it supplies 1.5 million barrels a day to the United States approximately 15 percent of U.S. oil imports are seen by analysts as key factors influencing relations between Washington and Caracas.
Another element is that Chávez’s mandate was strengthened when 59 percent of voters expressed their support for him in the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum, the results of which were endorsed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
Referring to the referendum, Powell said "that’s over and behind us."
Against that backdrop, Chávez "has reaffirmed his focus on a goal he has held since taking office in 1999: to insert Venezuela in a multilateral global scenario, towards which he aims to strengthen ‘strategic alliances’ with Russia and China, in the first place," said Carlos Romero.
In November, Chávez will travel to China, India and Iran, with which he is seeking closer political ties while negotiating economic agreements. He will also visit Spain and perhaps a few countries in Africa, he said last Sunday.
In addition, the president will be heading to Moscow at an unspecified date.
Chávez is also pressing for political, economic and even military integration in South America, with a special emphasis on energy integration.
Venezuela recently became an associate member of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, whose full members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.