Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cold War-type tensions rise in Latin America

Caracas (AFP) July 28, 2009Cold War-style tensions are developing in Latin America following a Russian deal with Venezuela on military cooperation and a US pact with Colombia to use three of its bases.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a longtime antagonist of the United States, on Monday signed an accord with visiting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin giving him access to more arms purchases, training and military technology.
Diplomatic sources in Caracas told AFP the agreement was not simply Russia supplying Venezuela with materiel, "but a more official level of bilateral cooperation."
Russia was given an opportunity to increase military ties with Venezuela after the former US government of president George W. Bush reduced arms sales to the South American oil exporter in 2006 because Caracas was not seen doing enough to help in the US "war on terrorism."
Between 2005 and 2007, Moscow and Caracas have signed 12 arms deals worth a total 4.4 billion dollars. Venezuela has acquired 24 Sukhoi fighter planes, 50 combat helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles under their terms.
Chavez, who is leading a leftist surge in Latin America and repeatedly lambasts the United States for perceived "imperialist" policies in the region, in March also offered Venezuelan air bases for use by Russian long-range bombers.
In November last year, the navies of Venezuela and Russia pointedly held joint exercises in the Caribbean -- traditionally considered a US domain.
Most recently, Chavez has confirmed the purchase of Russian-made BMP3, MPR and T-72 tanks to replace its obsolete fleet of armored vehicles and to reinforce Venezuela's border with Colombia.
"We have no plans to attack anyone. We only want to defend ourselves," Chavez said Monday.
But there was no mistaking an increasingly dangerous friction between Venezuela and US ally Colombia.
Sparks went flying on July 15, when Bogota announced that the United States was to open three bases in Colombia as part of Washington's anti-drug operations.
They were partly to compensate for a decision by Ecuador, an ally of Venezuela's, to close a US base.
Ecuador raged against Bogota's move and warned "an increase in military tension" was a possibility.
Chavez last week alleged "a Yankee military force" was planning to invade his country from Colombia. He earlier announced that he would review ties with Bogota over the base agreement.
Venezuela and Colombia nearly went to war last year after Colombian forces raided a camp belonging to leftist guerillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) just across the border with Ecuador in late March 2008.
Bogota claims computer hard drives and flash drives recovered in the raid showed Chavez had links to both the FARC and the illegal drug trade.
Quito and Caracas broke diplomatic ties with Bogota over the action. Chavez has since restored ties with Colombia, but Ecuador has not. Distrust remains.
Two weeks ago, Colombian television aired a video appearing to show a FARC chief saying the rebels financed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's 2006 presidential campaign.
Then on Monday, Colombia said it had discovered arms sold by Venezuela were in FARC hands. Caracas denied the accusation.
Analysts saw belligerence brewing -- and Washington contributing to the situation.
The US use of the Colombian bases "renews antagonistic relations" between Washington and several Latin American governments President Barack Obama "was hoping to overcome," said Carlos Espinosa, an international relations professor at the Universidad of San Francisco de Quito.
"The bases do concentrate all US military activity in Colombia ... it makes Colombia isolated in the region," said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
Coupled with Chavez's anti-US "propaganda," there was a "circus atmosphere (that)... is not good for Latin-America overall," he said.
"These things can get out of hands -- look at Honduras, nobody thought Honduras was a real crisis," he said.

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