On the world stage, Chavez’s behavior is increasingly ominous. As Fidel Castro has aged and Cuba’s relations with Russia have faded, Chavez has stepped forward. He has engaged in extensive military cooperation with Moscow, including major acquisitions of conventional weapons, from infantry rifles to sophisticated, high-end weapons well beyond any conceivably legitimate requirements of Venezuela’s military. Chavez’s purchases of advanced-model Kalashnikov assault rifles, some Venezuelan businessmen and former diplomats suggest, are meant to arm campesino “militias” that will rally to him if Venezuela’s military ever threatens his regime, or the weapons may be destined for revolutionary or terrorist groups. In either case, the consequences would be profoundly negative.
Beyond enhancing his own swaggering reputation, Chavez’s growing closeness with Russia and Iran on nuclear matters should be our greatest concern. For decades, after military governments fell in Brazil and Argentina, Latin America prided itself on avoiding the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco symbolized this perceived immunity, but the region’s nuclear-free status is today gravely threatened.
Now, Venezuela is openly helping Iran evade international sanctions imposed because of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Along with the refined petroleum products it supplies Tehran, Chavez allows Iranian banks and other sanctioned enterprises to use Caracas as a base for conducting business internationally and, reportedly, to facilitate Hezbollah’s activity in the hemisphere.