US warns on Venezuela weapons plans
By Raymond Colitt in Brasília
Published: March 23 2005 18:57 | Last updated: March 24 2005 00:15
The US on Wednesday stepped up its pressure against Venezuela's weapons procurement programme warning that it threatened to destabilise the region.
Comments by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, during a visit to Brazil, were the strongest indicator yet of growing concern in Washington about the planned acquisition of large quantities of firearms from Russia by President Hugo Chávez's leftwing government in Venezuela.
"I can't imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s, I can't imagine what is going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s," Mr Rumsfeld said before meeting Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "I personally hope the [delivery] doesn't happen...if it did, it wouldn't be good for the hemisphere."
Earlier this month, US officials said they feared the weapons could end up in the hands of leftwing guerrillas such as the Farc in Colombia. Some Chávez critics even speculated they could end up with leftwing groups in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region.
The tension threatens to put strain on the relationship between Washington and one of its top oil suppliers. The United States is the biggest consumer of oil from Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter.
Increasingly frustrated with Mr Chávez's fiery anti-US rhetoric and suspecting contacts with "destabilising forces" in the region, Washington is turning to Brazil as a moderator.
"We wish Chávez would listen more to Lula," said a top-level aide accompanying Mr Rumsfeld on a tour of South America.
"Our two countries are looking at ways to work together more closely to confront the anti-social threats from organised crime, gangs, drug-traffickers hostage-takers, and terrorists," Mr Rumsfeld added.
Mr Lula da Silva, who has a cordial relationship with Mr Chávez, is to participate in a summit between the Colombian and Venezuelan heads of state and José Luiz Zapatero, Spain's prime minister, in Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela, on Tuesday.
Mr Rumsfeld's trip to Brazil, which included a visit to the satellite-based Amazon surveillance system in Manaus, is part of growing perception in Washington that the leftleaning Lula da Silva admistration is an ally in tackling of instability in the region. Previous US concerns, such as Brazil's uranium enrichment programme, appear to have put to one side.
"Brazil's role in the region is well seen in Washington. Dealing with Venezuela and pursuing regional leadership is in our and their interest," said Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to the US.