Venezuela Prepares Defense Against Potential U.S. Aggression from Colombia
By James Suggett
July 24, 2009 - Venezuelanalysis.com
In response to Colombia's "unfriendly" decision to expand the U.S. military presence on Colombian bases, Venezuela will strengthen its fleet of armored vehicles and increase its military presence along its border with Colombia, President Hugo Chavez said on Thursday.
"You are opening your house to an enemy of your neighbor... and the neighbor has the right to say that it is an unfriendly act," Chavez said to the Colombian government. The president specified that his intention is not to interfere with Colombian affairs. "I am not meddling in your house," he said.
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said his government does not plan to attack Venezuela, only Colombian guerrilla rebels. "We combat terrorists, we do not attack governments or peoples," said Uribe.
Nonetheless, Chavez warned a group of Venezuelan military officers during a ceremony at Fort Tiuna in Caracas that the U.S. military buildup in Colombia would likely bring more "mercenaries, spy planes, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], and paramilitaries" to South America.
Chavez, who is a former military officer, reminded the group that the U.S. supported the coup d'etat against Chavez in April 2002. He asserted that the U.S. "has plans to invade Venezuela," and "wants to convert Colombia into the Israel of Latin America."
The president also raised questions about why Venezuelan opposition leaders, including the mayor of Metropolitan Caracas and the governors of two states on the border with Colombia, Zulia and Tachira, had met with White House officials in Washington D.C. earlier in the week, shortly after the Honduran elite had carried out a military coup and the U.S. was increasing its military presence in Colombia.
"The extreme right sectors continue to conspire," said Chávez. "They were there in the White House and the OAS [Organization of American States] practically asking for Venezuela to be intervened in, that's what they want."
In response to this threat, Chavez said Venezuela would continue its arms purchases from Russia. "We are moving forward on several new tank battalions to have an armored force that is double what we have today," said the president. He also said Venezuela will strengthen its militias, in which students, reservists, and community members may participate in addition to active duty soldiers, nation-wide.
Over the past three years, Venezuela has purchased 24 Sukhoi warplanes, 100,000 Kalishnokov automatic rifles, 50 attack helicopters, and other military equipment from Russia. Venezuelan opposition leaders and the private media have accused Venezuela of an arms buildup. Venezuela's military budget is one six hundredth of that of the U.S., and the amount Venezuela has spent on arms purchases from Russia, as much as $5.4 billion, is approximately equal to the amount of mostly military aid the U.S. Congress approved for Colombia between the years 2000 and 2008.
The recent spat sparked by the increased U.S. military presence in Colombia is reminiscent of the diplomatic crisis that erupted after Colombian forces bombarded an encampment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuadoran territory in March 2008. Colombia said it had rescued a laptop from the wreckage that allegedly belonged to the FARC's second in command, who was killed in the attack, and contained evidence that Venezuela was financing the leftist rebels.
On Thursday, Chávez admitted that Colombian guerrillas at times cross over the Venezuelan border illegally, but reiterated that the Venezuelan government does not support any military solution to Colombia's civil war.
"I am not going to deny it, the Colombian guerrillas come and go, but it's not that we protect them, it's that the border is thousands of miles long," said Chávez. "If Colombia and the FARC come to an agreement to have a peaceful dialogue, here we are willing to help."
He added that Venezuelan soldiers have battled with the FARC as well as the National Liberation Army (ELN) on several occasions.
The Venezuelan president participated briefly in humanitarian accord negotiations in 2007 before President Uribe dismissed him for contacting a high level military officer. Chavez later directly negotiated the release of several FARC hostages, and called on the rebels to release all their hostages and agree to a peace accord.
Despite having periodic diplomatic disputes related to military matters, Chavez and Uribe have often coincided in economic terms, holding more than a dozen meetings to discuss joint infrastructure projects, a joint development fund, oil exploitation, trade in automobiles, and food production in the past seven years.
However, Chavez said that Venezuela would look to other countries to replace imports from Colombia.