Miami Herald: How far is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez going down the road to military dictatorship, and how far does Latin America want to travel along with him? These are important questions for other Latin American governments whose democracies emerged after painful periods of military rule.
Unfortunately, the trend in Venezuela is away from civilian control and democratic processes. Though democratically elected, Chavez has been amassing authoritarian power and gutting Venezuela's democratic institutions for six years. Now he is militarizing the nation at full throttle.
Venezuela's plans to purchase arms include up to 24 combat planes from Brazil; military patrol boats and transport planes from Spain; and helicopters, 50 MiG jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles from Russia. That's more than $2 billion in war materiel for a nation that has only 32,000 regular army troops.
And there are other disturbing moves. Taking pages from Fidel Castro's playbook, Chavez also is training thousands of civilians to form "Popular Defense Units." He talks about increasing the military reserves to 1.5 million troops from a current reserve level of 50,000 troops. Armed with Russian assault rifles, the civilians easily could serve as a private army under the president's control.
Chavez repeatedly has claimed that these arms and troops are needed to protect Venezuela from a U.S. invasion. Yes, you read that right. Chavez, like Castro, keeps insisting that the United States is about to invade -- even though the U.S. government repeatedly has declared that it has no interest in a war with Venezuela. Indeed, with troops stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan and more serious military threats in Iran and North Korea, the United States would be hard-pressed to launch an offensive against Venezuela.
Venezuela's excesses in military purchases alone should concern its Latin American neighbors, some of whom are making purchases themselves. What are those arms intended for and in whose hands might they land, intentionally or not? Engaging in an arms race doesn't further any country's social or economic goals. Worse, it threatens to erode trust and heighten tensions between nations. Wouldn't it be better to act collectively to dampen the threat?