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martes, febrero 15, 2005

Falling Helicopters?

Since last week, U.S. officials have been harping on Venezuela’s plans to purchase military helicopters and rifles from Russia, expressing Washington’s concern (as reported by Reuters) that “the arms could fall into the hands of illegal groups operating in the region.”

Now, how exactly does a helicopter “fall into the hands of” anyone other than the army which bought it? While the soldiers’ backs are turned, will the rebel leader jump into the pilot´s seat and fly off before he can be stopped? Sounds like the plot of a Hollywood action flick.

In real life, the established army of a stable country is not going to negligently lose its brand-new equipment. Roger Noriega, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who criticized Venezuela’s arms purchase, surely knows that. (Besides, he has never shown such strong concern for the armaments sold by the U.S. to other countries, some of which are undoubtedly used against innocents – and let’s not even bring up the United States’ own recent military history. For that matter, Venezuela itself has routinely purchased arms from the U.S.!)

What Noriega is really suggesting, though he won’t –quite– say it, is that Venezuela will give arms to the FARC in Colombia or other groups in the region designated “terrorist” by the U.S. Leaving aside the question of the FARC’s status, is it true that Chávez would supply them with arms?

If it were, you’d think the Colombian government would be showing a bit more concern. After all, they’ve just emerged from a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela precipitated by Colombia’s kidnapping of FARC leader Rodrigo Granda in Caracas. And the Colombian army has just suffered a series of attacks by the FARC, killing dozens of soldiers. Colombian president Uribe has never been shy about accusing Venezuela of being too friendly with the FARC and not doing enough to “fight terrorism”.

But not a peep from Colombia about the Russian arms. Presidents Uribe and Chávez are meeting today to patch things up between the two countries after the Granda crisis, and in his announcements about the meeting Uribe hasn’t said a thing concerning the weapons purchase. (They were scheduled to meet last week, but Uribe fell seriously ill and is still recovering.) In fact, the Colombian ambassador announced yesterday that Venezuela´s arms purchases from Russia and Brazil will not be a topic of the meeting, because the two presidents have much more important subjects to discuss; and according to Venezuelan VP Rangel, Colombia`s defense minister has said the government doesn’t have a problem with the purchases. Relations between the neighboring nations aren’t perfect, but they’re being mended.

This may be precisely why Noriega and others in the administration chose now to backhandedly accuse Chávez of supplying weapons to the FARC, the Colombian government’s nemesis. Washington does not want good relations between Venezuela and Colombia, nor between Venezuela and any other Latin American nation. On the contrary, the administration seeks to isolate Venezuela by convincing the rest of Latin America that Chavez represents a threat, “a negative force in the region” that must be stopped, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently claimed.

But so far, Latin American nations aren’t buying it. “Creeping communism” may have sufficed to frighten people into obedience during the Cold War era, but “creeping Chavismo” just doesn’t do it. Venezuela is a small country, with fewer inhabitants than California, and has never demonstrated imperial ambitions, let alone the means to realize such ambitions. You can love him or hate him, but it’s rather absurd to argue that Chávez poses a threat to Latin America.

What he does threaten (along with several other leaders and diverse popular movements in the region) is neoliberalism, and specifically, the United States’ economic domination of Latin America. Negotiations between 34 nations establishing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, the FTAA, were supposed to have been completed by January 1, 2005, spreading the corporate version of free trade across the hemisphere (with Cuba of course excluded). The FTAA would have created the biggest free trade zone in the world, impacting more than 700 million people who inhabit the region.

But it didn’t happen. The resistance of Latin American nations has, for now, stymied the United States’ plans for a hemispheric “free trade zone”. Chavez has been among several Latin American leaders strongly opposed to the FTAA, saying its passage would be a “death certificate” for the Venezuelan people. He has even proposed an alternative trade agreement called the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, ALBA (as opposed to the FTAA, whose Spanish abreviation is ALCA). It´s not clear how likely it is that the ALBA will ever see the light as a hemisphere-wide trade agreement, but some of Chavez´s recent trade overtures to other Latin American nations have employed ALBA´s principles.

And of course there’s an oil connection (there’s always an oil connection). Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States. Recently Chavez has been making overtures to other nations (including China) regarding oil deals, as well as looking at renegotiating some contracts with mutlinational oil companies. This has the U.S. government very nervous.

Thus the saga of the arms purchaes continues. The Bush administration has filed a formal protest with Russia over the pending sale. Both Russia and Venezuela responded by reiterating that this is business between two soverign nations which violates no international laws; Venezuelan vice president Jose Vicente Rangel accused the U.S. of ¨impertinance¨ for trying to interfere, while Russia speculated that the U.S. fears a threat to its role as the world’s preeminant arms supplier.

In the next few weeks, we can look for the U.S. to continue harping on this theme in its communications with Russia, and perhaps to chastise Venezuela for its recent arms agreement with Brazil. Administration officials may have accused Chavez of trying to destabilize Latin America, but if they’re concerned about destabilization efforts, perhaps they should look closer to home.

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