Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has an iron grip on his country, and has attempted aggressively to expand his reach into neighboring Latin American nations. His open hostility toward Colombia and other Western allies has sparked an arms race in a region known for internal instability, but that rarely engages in hostilities between nations. Now, as Chavez cultivates a strong alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which continues to inch closer to achieving a nuclear weapon, analysts are wondering: could there be a nuclear arms race in Latin America?
Latin America in Context
While Latin America has been a breeding ground of tumult in the last century, most of it was the result of internal strife and inner social and political conflict. Conflicts between Latin American nations have been rare. Exceptions include the war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, tensions between Chile and Argentina in 1978, and fighting between Peru and Ecuador in 1995. These minor conflicts aside, Latin America has avoided regional conflict primarily because the larger powers—Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—do not claim hegemony over their neighbors.
The Rise of Chavez
With the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, however, regional tensions are bubbling to the surface. Since 1999, Chavez has been gradually undermining his country’s democratic system by imposing various constitutional “reforms” that wrest control of the legislative branch, the courts, and the electoral council. Moreover, he has moved to pass educational laws aimed at indoctrinating students with Chavez’s own “Bolivarian doctrine.” Chavez, who has used the instruments of government to harass unions and human rights advocates, and to inhibit free speech and voting rights, is fast converting Venezuela into a totalitarian state under his absolute control.
Chavez is now working to increase his power beyond Venezuela. In 2007, he presented a road map detailing his goal of consolidating his leadership over other countries willing to accept his social and political recipe in the “South American community.” Indeed, Chavez seeks a hegemonic block of countries in Latin America under his control that could challenge the United States, a country Chavez rejects as imperialist and standing in the way of true 21st century, revolutionary socialism.
To this end, Chavez leverages his country’s multi-billion dollar oil revenue to interfere in other countries’ affairs. He mostly supports and funds Latin American electoral candidates that share radical socialist views. This strategy has been a successful one for Chavez in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Dependent upon Chavez’s oil-based largesse, the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua adopted Chavez’s ideology, and have sought to implement measures aimed at exercising tighter control over their populations.
The summer 2009 crisis in Honduras, for example, was the direct result of meddling by Chavez. The Venezuelan strongman succeeded in influencing President Mel Zelaya to seek an indefinite term in office. This would have provided Zelaya with virtually unlimited power, and in the process strengthened Chavez’s bid for regional hegemony.
In the countries where his favorite candidates have not been successful, Chavez aggressively tries to influence the opposition. To this end, Chavez funded several violent rebellions in Peru, as well as Colombia, a country he views as a U.S. proxy and an archenemy of his revolution. Indeed, Chavez established a strong alliance with the Colombian guerillas known as the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and even facilitated the activities of the Colombian drug cartels by allowing Venezuelan territory to be used by these groups. In addition to these destabilizing activities, Chavez also frequently speaks publicly about the possibility of war against Colombia, and tells his military to prepare for such an occurrence.
The Arming of Venezuela
Currently, the Venezuelan army is no match for the Colombian army, which is far superior in numbers and training. Indeed, Venezuela would likely lose a number of battles against other Latin American armies. For this reason, Venezuela recently secured a $2.2 billion line of credit from Russia for new arms purchases. According to their agreement, Venezuela will buy 92 T-72 battle tanks, Smerch rocket artillery systems, and the Antey 2500 anti-ballistic missile system. In recent years, Venezuela has also acquired two-dozen Su-30MK2 fighter jets and received a license to manufacture AK-103 assault rifles.
The arming of Venezuela has not gone unnoticed. Analysts of Latin American affairs are now increasingly wary of Chavez’s build-up, particularly in light of the Venezuelan leader’s close relationship with Iran, a budding nuclear power. Indeed, it would come as no surprise if Chavez sought a nuclear weapon. After all, he is a leader who seeks broader power in the region.
Does Chavez Want Nukes?
Latin America is today a nuclear free zone. In 1967, 24 Latin American countries signed a multilateral agreement banning the manufacture, acquisition, testing, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons in Latin America (The Treaty of Tlatelolco). The need for the treaty became clear after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
For a while, Brazil and Argentina maintained an ambiguous posture towards the treaty; they supported the ban on weapons, but sought to enhance their civilian nuclear programs. Since 1990, however, both countries have become parties to a non-proliferation treaty and pledged full commitment to a nuclear weapons free zone. Both countries have allowed mutual nuclear inspections. Observers have even highlighted the Brazil-Argentina nuclear agreement as an ideal model to be applied worldwide, particularly for India and Pakistan.
In 2005, Chavez announced his desire to develop a civil nuclear program. He reportedly raised the possibility of gaining assistance from Argentina and Brazil, since both nations still maintained facilities. When Chavez further called for cooperation between these countries and Iran, both governments quietly refused.
Venezuela and Iran
During the visit of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to Caracas in March 2005, Venezuela and Iran signed an agreement of commercial and technological cooperation. Chavez took the opportunity to publicly defend Iran’s right to produce atomic energy, and continue research in the area of nuclear development. Chavez soon issued several other statements to this effect, thereby becoming one of the most outspoken supporters of the Iranian nuclear program.
In March 2006, the two countries established a $200 million development fund and signed bilateral deals to build homes and exploit petroleum. Venezuelan opposition groups soon warned that the deal also might have involved the transfer of uranium from Iran to Venezuela. Israel’s external security apparatus, the Mossad, then provided the exact locations of uranium production in Venezuela. The existence of Venezuelan facilities soon was corroborated by a Venezuelan nuclear expert, an Israeli official, and in September 2009, the Venezuelan minister of mining, Rodolfo Sanz.
Chavez, for his part, seems content to publicize the existence of a Venezuelan nuclear program. He declared that Venezuela and Iran are working to build a nuclear village in Venezuela, which “will serve peaceful purposes.” Subsequent reports indicate that the two countries are cooperating in matters related to uranium extraction. Former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega also suggests that Venezuela could become home to an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Iran and Venezuela signed an agreement on military-related matters in November 2008, but the content of the agreement remains largely unknown.
No Nukes… Yet
The acquisition of nuclear weapons is a reasonable next step for Chavez. A nuclear weapon could provide him with the respect, fear, and deterrence he seeks to carry out his imperial aspirations. Indeed, the bomb could be a short cut to earning the respect of political foes and wielding enough power to intimidate regional or world players.
Perhaps with this in mind, Venezuela signed an agreement with Russia in September 2008 to build a nuclear power plant. The Russian company in charge of the project would be Atomstroyexport, the same firm assisting Iran with its Bushehr nuclear plant.
Still, it must be stated clearly that there is no credible evidence to indicate that Venezuela has even the most basic infrastructure needed for a nuclear program. As one senior advisor to Brazil’s foreign ministry stated in 2005, “Venezuela cannot fulfill these [nuclear] ambitions since it has no nuclear infrastructure and no nuclear engineer.” This still holds true today.
The fear of a nuclear Venezuela is based almost entirely on the close and continuing relationship between Venezuela and Iran. Venezuela provides assistance to Iran in skirting financial sanctions. For example, Chavez has agreed to sell refined petroleum to Iran to help the Mullahs offset the potential damage of Western sanctions against its oil supply chain. Chavez also supports Iran through diplomatic rants against Israel and the United States, and serves as Iran’s top source of rhetorical support in Latin America.
Iran is appreciative of Chavez, who has yet to cash in on the good will he has created. The fear is that the Venezuelan leader might ask his friends in Tehran to not just help him create a nuclear program, but rather to simply supply him with weapons.
The Threat in Perspective
The White House, to date, is less threatened by Venezuela. Dan Restrepo, Senior Director for Latin America at the National Security Council, stated in a recent interview with El Nuevo Herald that he does not see Venezuela as a challenge to U.S. national security, stating that the days of the “hot and cold war” are over. Similarly, the Organization of American States (OAS) has largely ignored Chavez’s bellicose public statements and foreign policies.
Iran, one could argue further, does not yet have an operational nuclear weapons program. If Western diplomacy and sanctions are effective, Tehran will not be able to provide Chavez with the weapons he seeks.
If, however, Western efforts fail, and Iran becomes a nuclear power, Venezuela can serve as both a source of instability in Latin America, and a strategic threat to the United States, with nuclear weapons in America’s back yard. As such, as the Iranian crisis reaches it peak, the activities of Hugo Chavez must be monitored closely.
Luis Fleischman is an adjunct professor of Sociology and Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, and an advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.