US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday criticized Venezuela's reported efforts to purchase 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia, suggesting that Venezuela's possession of so many weapons would threaten the hemisphere.
Harsh accusations and increasing animosity have marked the relationship between the US and Venezuela. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has warned that he will cut off shipments of his country's oil to the US if the Bush administration supports an attempt to force him from office.
Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and provides about 13 percent of US crude oil imports.
Rumsfeld, during a four-day trip to Latin America, raised concerns about the reports of Venezuela's rifle purchases.
"I can't imagine what's going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s," Rumsfeld said at a news conference in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, which shares a border with Venezuela. "I can't understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s. I personally hope it doesn't happen. I can't imagine if it did happen it would be good for the hemisphere."
Rumsfeld appeared with Brazil's vice president and defense minister, Jose Alencar, who declined to offer similar criticism of Chavez. Alencar would only say that Brazil respects the right of self-determination of other countries.
Venezuela says its military has about 100,000 troops, plus 30,000 reservists. The US is concerned that the weapons are intended for domestic militias or foreign guerillas.
Venezuela had no immediate reaction to Rumsfeld's comments. Chavez has insisted that his government poses no threat to the region and top Venezuelan officials have defended the purchases as necessary replacements for existing weapons. Venezuelan officials also have said the weapons are solely for the military.
A senior US defense official, speaking about Venezuela only on condition of anonymity, said weapons are expected to arrive in a few months. Venezuela also is negotiating for the purchase of at least 40 Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, at least 30 Russian attack helicopters, and possibly some Spanish naval vessels, the official said, citing public statements from Venezuelan officials and US intelligence.
Some of the larger weapons systems, such as the helicopters, are useful in border patrol and other operations that the Pentagon regards as legitimate. But the small arms are harder to track and could more easily end up in criminal or guerrilla hands, even if Chavez does not intend for them to be transferred.
In addition, the US official said Chavez is looking to build a small arms ammunition factory that can make the 7.62mm bullets that are in common use among guerillas and criminals, as well as some militaries. That deal is in negotiation.
The chief guerrilla group in neighboring Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, has faced a shortage in such ammunition and is paying US$1 a round or higher, in some cases, the official said. The US state department considers FARC a terrorist organization; Brazil does not.
Many of these groups are armed with weapons and ammunition from Nicaragua, a former Soviet client. That source has dried up with a pro-US administration in power in Nicaragua.
Many Latin America nations has reduced the size of their militaries since the violence of the 1980s. Officials fear Chavez's actions could lead to a new arms race.