It may be pure coincidence that within weeks of a quiet visit by North Korean delegates to Caracas, Venezuela to see dictator-in-progress Hugo Chavez, the Koreans test-fired a medium range missile 65 miles into the East Sea (a.k.a. Sea of Japan). On the other hand, trusting to coincidence when evaluating intentions and capabilities of rogue regimes can result in trouble for all concerned.
Americans need to be troubled about increasingly dark developments in our hemisphere, especially regarding Venezuela. Once a budding democracy, Venezuela under Chavez is rapidly turning into an autocratic Marxist state. His growing friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is no longer conducted in secret. Esteemed Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes that while many are joking that Venezuela is the “largest Cuban province,” that the truth of the matter is that Venezuela may “be in the process of appropriating Cuba.”
Considering that Venezuela sits on huge oil reserves and provides America with about 15 percent of our annual consumption, it is disturbing indeed to learn that a nascent democracy is coming unraveled in South America. Having another communist dictatorship in the hemisphere would be bad news indeed. Making the news worse in this case is Chavez’s often stated delusions of glory. As with many tin-pot dictators, he sees himself amalgamating vast territories and controlling huge wealth. According to O’Grady Chavez “envisions an axis of power linking Brasilla, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires.” He speaks of controlling a sweep of territory ranging from Atlantic to Pacific.
His first target has to be Colombia. He is dedicated to “breaking the spine of democracy” in the Latin region. That means the death of Colombia. While some consider it speculative or highly premature to comment on these activities, it seems reasonable to ask pertinent questions: why would Chavez purchase more than 100,000 Russian-block weapons for his army that is armed with a European-based weapons system? Could it be that his ties with the narcoterrorists in Colombia are firmer than many are willing to admit? It makes perfect sense from Chavez’s standpoint to undermine the Colombian democratic government by offering unlimited military assistance and territorial sanctuary to the FARC, Colombia's narcotics based, Marxist revolutionary movement that is waging open guerrilla warfare against the legitimate government. O’Grady reports that a defecting Venezuelan army officer was under orders not to interfere with FARC encampments and base areas inside the Venezuelan border when he was posted in that area not long ago. If Colombia falls to the guerrillas and narcoterrorists, it could generate a Red tide that would sweep less stable governments away.
Chavez is also expecting delivery of a squadron of MiG-29 aircraft. These high performance fighter aircraft are top line fighters, far superior to most aircraft in the region. Appearance of Soviet-type war planes in South America seems like déjà vu all over again. In the early 1980s America worked hard to unseat the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and even launched an invasion of the island nation of Grenada when military airfield construction began. The U.S. took on a mission to rid the hemisphere of a serious military threat then. We many have to do so again. Pentagon planners are undoubtedly formulating contingency plans to deal with Chavez’s new weapons systems. Meanwhile, sending a decidedly confusing signal, President Bush continues to speak favorably of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Considering that Putin is supporting our enemies in the Middle East – Syria and Iran, and now selling sophisticated fighter aircraft to a budding dictator and anti-American thug in our hemisphere, it is past time for the president to toughen his inexplicably soft stance with Russia.
Making a difficult situation even more troubling is the under-the-radar visit by North Koreans. When we consider plausible reasons for a North Korean visit to a territorially ambitious Hugo Chavez, none portend good news. They are certainly not in Caracas to sell some of the low quality, slave labor manufactured junk they produce in their euphemistically named “New Economic Zones.” For the past decade North Korea’s main export has been missiles. North Korea has been an equal opportunity proliferator. It sold missiles to Iraq under Saddam, to Iran, Syria, Libya, and possibly Pakistan. Just prior to the War in Iraq American ships intercepted a North Korean freighter bound for Yemen with a load of missiles. America insisted that the missiles remain in Yemen. It is probable that the missiles were intended to be transshipped to Syria by road. This batch was intercepted but more leak through untouched.
The North Koreans can offer Chavez a variety on their menu of death: SCUDs are typically at the bottom of the rung, a kind of “start up package” for international thugs. Short range, about 300 km, rather inaccurate, capable of being more of a terror weapon than a precise military missile, the SCUD was been bothersome in Gulf War I. But North Korea has made significant improvements on the basic SCUD-C, known in its inventory as Hwasong-6. Now with a boosted range of approximately 700 km, carrying a 700 kg payload and engineered with improved accuracy, a Hwasong launched from Venezuela could attack Bogota easily and hit targets in the Panama Canal region. However, this is hardly the limit of North Korean technology. They can also provide Chavez with the Nodong and the Taepodong class missiles. When these systems are present the price of intimidation rises dramatically in the region.
For example, the basic Nodong class missile is capable of reaching approximately 1,500 km. It threatens targets as far away as Mexico and possibly the coastal southern United States. With a payload lighter than the 800 kg for which it is rated it might stretch range a bit longer. On the other hand, a Taepodong I, the basic intermediate range missile that North Korea has tested by firing it over the Japanese islands, can hit targets as far away as Atlanta. Perhaps more germane to Chavez’s megalomaniac concept of himself as head of an imperial South America is the fact that such weapons would be extremely intimidating to his neighbors who have neither the finances nor the capabilities to counter his threats. The specter of an oil-rich, highly-armed, anti-American dictator who makes his own law could be extremely appealing to regional revolutionary groups and criminal enterprises that might see him as providing a protective umbrella. Chavez might be a magnet to pull all anti-democratic forces together in his region.
To date these threats have not materialized and it is unwise to panic over them. That said, it would be equally unwise to delay contingency planning until missiles and high performance aircraft begin unloading on the docks of Caracas or worse, bullying Venezuela’s neighbors.