In his in his recent visit to Latin America Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was asked about one of the recent arms deals between Russia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Secretary Rumsfeld remarked, “I can't understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s. I personally hope it doesn't happen. I can't imagine, if it did happen, it would be good for the hemisphere.” In all likelihood, the Secretary of Defense was being diplomatic in understating his own knowledge of the situation especially considering that the entire Venezuelan armed forces, including reserves, total only 82,300 personnel. Furthermore, not everyone in the military carries a rifle. This means that the total needed to equip with new rifles, even accounting for attrition in weapons, is likely around or below 50,000 AK-47’s. Even if Chavez’s explanation of equipping the Venezuelan armed forces made sense, which it doesn’t, Chavez has yet to explain what he intends to do with the current Venezuelan stockpile of FN-FAL assault rifles. With Chavez’s explanation of military need collapsing under the weight of the 100,000 rifles, an examination of Venezuelan government policies could offer a better explanation.
Those who don’t watch one of the Spanish language channels or al-Jazeera regularly might have missed the recent visit by President Khatami of Iran with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. This visit comes as no surprise to those few who have really been paying attention to geopolitical events in Latin America. This visit also provides a key to understanding current Venezuelan polices. For the past few years these two régimes have been developing a strong, productive relationship. These two leaders have a surprising number of issues in common considering one is a leftist, would-be Marxist Latin American despot in training, and the other is an Islamist terrorist puppet of the Iranian mullahcrats.
However on the issue of the 100,000 new assault rifles that Chavez is about to receive, there is something special that Iran has to offer.
After having aided and in some instances directly ran much of the insurgency in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the government of Iran and in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) could provide invaluable assistance to the Chavez in his ongoing covert and increasingly overt assistance to the narco-Marxist terrorist known as the FARC and ELN in Colombia. These forces originally created by the Soviets and Cubans have been waging a 40-year campaign to destroy the democratic government in Colombia. In recent years, because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the success of U.S.-Colombian efforts to dismantle the drug cartels, FARC and other such groups, who were always connected and paid to protect the cartels operations, have begun taking a far more active role in the production and distribution of drugs from Latin America to the rest of the world. This has provided the financial resources necessary for them to continue their violence.
With success in recent years under President Uribe leadership and with United States aid, which after Afghanistan and Iraq represents the third largest U.S. commitment of resources against an insurgency, FARC and their fellow narco-terrorists are once again facing increased pressure, including on their primary source of financing for operations. In addition the loss of direct military support, in terms of weapons and other material for such groups throughout Latin America, and for that matter the rest of the world, following the collapse of the Soviet Union has meant that they have had to use up existing stockpiles of arms and often pay well above the market value for replacements. No longer can they depend on the KGB to hand out weapons and ammunition like candy, which obviously increases the operating expenses for these terrorists.
Enter Chavez and his control over the oil reserves of Venezuela. Not only has Chavez allowed the FARC and the ELN to operate safe havens on Venezuelan territory, but there are also reports of his use of forces loyal to him to directly support the FARC in battles against the Colombian military. There are also the suspected direct financial and material support provided to these and other similar groups throughout the region. With this in mind it is not difficult to figure out what Chavez intends to do with at least part if not all of the 100,000 AK-47’s that he is buying from Russia.
Unfortunately for the United States this is not the only connection Chavez has to terrorist groups, according to Major Diaz Castillo of the Venezuelan Air force, who was Chavez’s personal pilot until he defected, that he was ordered by Chavez to provide $1 million to al-Qaeda following 9/11, and that he witnessed the providing of Venezuelan identity cards to known terrorists on FBI watch lists. This could also offer insights into the increasingly close relationship between Chavez and the government of Iran, where large numbers of the al-Qaeda leadership are either known or suspected to be.
Furthermore, Chavez has raised the use of oil as a tool of statecraft nearly to an art form. It has been reported that Chavez provides below market price oil to the several nations of CARICOM (Caribbean Community) in exchange for their political and diplomatic good graces. In addition, Chavez provides large amounts of free oil to Cuba, which has kept that countries economy going the last few years. He has also funneled oil revenues to the Forum of Sao Paulo, an organization set up by Castro in the early nineties to replace his Tri-Continental Congress and whose stated goal is “our [Communist] losses in Eastern Europe will be made up for with our gains in Latin America.” This organization has already succeeded in bringing members associates to power in at least five Latin American countries, including Chavez's own victory in Venezuela.
In the final analysis it makes little difference whether Chavez intends those 100,000 AK-47’s for his own military or not; after all, if he is replacing his entire military arsenal still raises the question of what will become of the current Venezuelan stockpiles. Unfortunately Secretary Rumsfeld’s assertion that 100,000 AK-47’s are not “good for the hemisphere” may prove to be very prescient particularly as it relates to the near term vital interests of the U.S. and our allies.