Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez wants to go nuclear. Recently, Chávez signed an agreement with his counterpart, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, for Russia to build in Venezuela one nuclear plant with two nuclear reactors to generate power, and one small research reactor to make medical isotopes and what was described as nuclear materials that could be useful as pesticides for agriculture. Moscow's deal with Caracas comes after having been in the pipeline for two years; it follows the construction of a similar reactor in Iran that was completed last August. Neither Medvedev nor Chávez offered an exact timeline for the project, but observers say that it might take ten years before the project is completed.
Chávez, who is striving for the creation of a new world order, meant to break the traditional influence of the United States over Latin America, and has woven for years a web of relations with countries such as Iran, Russia, Syria or Libya, based on political affinity and on opposition to the U.S.
Chavez's international moves cast fears over the creation of a Venezuela-Iran-Russia partnership, which some see as a growing threat below Washington's soft underbelly.
The Chavez partnerships cover a series of multi-faceted interests that are both economical and strategic.
Iran has been seeking uranium from Venezuela (and from Bolivia), and both Iran and Venezuela want nuclear technology and more conventional weaponry from Russia.
In exchange, Venezuela is offering money and mineral wealth: uranium and gasoline for Iran; and gold, oil, uranium and natural gas for Russia. According to military analysts, Russia is sending T-72 and T-90 tanks that will replace the aging French MX-30s. Russian Prime Minister Putin personally assured Chavez that Russia will soon deliver the first 35 tanks out of the total of 92 that Venezuela has ordered.
Over the past several years, Moscow has been the main supplier of Venezuela's arms build-up. "We are willing to supply tanks, and, with respect to other types of weapons, we will do it broadly," Russia's Putin said last week, adding that "Russian companies have started to work according to their orders."
While Chávez has said that he is arming his citizen militias, known as Bolivarian Circles, there are rumours that the weapons may also be going to agents and fighters from the Colombian FARC -- Hezbollah and Cuban security and intelligence services, whose numbers, according to many observers and U.S. security sources, have swelled in Venezuela. Interpol confirmed evidence that Venezuela has funnelled well over $300 million to the FARC and that it has built an ammunition plant to supply AK-103s, the FARC weapon of choice.
In tandem with Venezuela's military build-up, Chávez's avowed support for the FARC is a real worry for Colombia as well as Washington, which sees Colombia as its closest regional ally.
Medvedev said that Moscow's motives in helping Chávez to go nuclear were "absolutely pure and open." However, his comments will do little to reassure the United States and its partners in Latin America, who are well aware of Venezuela's history as a state sponsor of terrorism, a regional bully, and a close ally of the Iranian theocracy.
This agreement has handed the Obama administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency a headache that will not go away easily. The problem is not so much the introduction of nuclear energy to the Latin American country, which has growing electricity needs, but the unpredictable policies of the populist Hugo Chávez.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington that the United States hoped both Russia and Venezuela would act responsibly and adhere to IAEA rules.
President Obama's first reaction.was: "Venezuela has rights at the time of peacefully developing the nuclear power, but also has duties… not to turn it into weapons."
It should be stressed that this year, oil-rich Venezuela won dubious distinction as the only major Latin American economy to shrink despite steady income from crude oil exports. Prolonged outages of power and water supplies in 2009 and into 2010, which exacerbated popular discontent, were partly the result of severe drought. According to experts, the problems mostly arose from the government's poor performance.
Chávez argues that the nuclear program is necessary in a country like Venezuela that regularly suffers energy shortages. But those shortages are the result of the regime's inefficiencies and waste. After all, in addition to enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Venezuela has some of the greatest hydroelectric dams in the world — which are poorly maintained and often do not work properly. As one analyst pointed out, "Chávez, instead of fixing things at home, is spending Venezuelans' patrimony abroad in order to project power -- not Venezuela's, but his own."