Region must be wary of Venezuela: U.S. official

A nice hit piece.  I’m including a graph at the bottom.

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Region must be wary of Venezuela: U.S. official

Thu Aug 23, 2007 6:07PM EDT

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuela’s regional neighbors should be ready to respond to a potential threat from President Hugo Chavez’s arms build-up, which could be used to intimidate rather than for self-defense, a senior U.S. defense official said on Thursday.

Chavez, a self-styled socialist staunchly opposed to Washington, has irked the White House by spending billions of dollars on Russian fighter jets, attack helicopters and Kalashnikov rifles to refurbish the military.

The Bush administration has banned U.S. arms sales to Venezuela, criticized Chavez’s purchase of jets from Moscow and said his plans to build rifle factories raise concerns about weapons reaching guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

“It seems as if a build up of this character doesn’t really respond to the reality on the ground there,” U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs Stephen Johnson told reporters during a visit Bogota.

“It has an effect of intimidating neighbors … and democracies in the region need to be able to respond to this in a way that will help reduce this kind of threat,” he said.

Johnson said governments should turn to diplomacy as “the first line of defense” and work through groups such as the Organization of American States in Washington.

Chavez, a former soldier popular for his heavy spending on social programs for the poor, says he is training the armed forces to repel a possible U.S. attack. He says the weapons purchases are needed to modernize Venezuela’s armed forces.

The Venezuelan leader, a close ally of Cuba and Iran, says he wants to forge a regional alliance to counter U.S. foreign and trade policies. But U.S. officials and critics brand him a would-be dictator who has undermined Venezuela’s democracy.

Colombia is Washington’s strongest ally in a region where left-wing leaders such as Chavez have gained ground. President Alvaro Uribe has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight left-wing rebels and cocaine trafficking that helps fuel the country’s four-decade-old war.

http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSN2327002620070823

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