updated 5/30/2006 6:34:38 PM ET 2006-05-30T22:34:38

Venezuela is buying helicopters, boats and military transport planes in defense deals worth about $2.7 billion, modernizing its military as tensions grow between leftist President Hugo Chavez and the United States.

Flush with oil profits but blocked from buying U.S. arms, Chavez is increasingly looking to countries like Russia and Spain as suppliers.

A cargo ship carrying 30,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles is headed to Venezuela with the first shipment of an order totaling 100,000 guns to arrive by year’s end. The military is looking to buy more submarines, and Chavez is planning an even bigger deal for Russian fighter jets.

“The United States is failing in its attempt to blockade us, to disarm us,” Chavez said after announcing the first shipment of Kalashnikovs.

Washington has pointed to the mounting defense deals with concern and urged Russia and Spain not to do business with Venezuela. Both countries have shrugged off the warnings.

Venezuela’s defense budget is up 31 percent this year, to $2 billion, and that doesn’t include roughly $2.2 billion it plans to spend for 10 transport planes and eight patrol boats on what will be Spain’s largest-ever defense deal.

Chavez says the spending is necessary to keep the military up to date and to obtain “minimal arms for the defense of our seas, land and airspace.”

Spends less than its neighbors
Defense economist Mark Stoker says the deals so far don’t appear to be a significant buildup; Venezuela is not spending as much as Brazil and Colombia.

“My interpretation is that Venezuela had a certain amount of aging military equipment and needed to replace some of that” using its windfall oil profits, said Stoker of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Chavez also is helping Bolivian President Evo Morales and has warned of a U.S. plot to oust Morales — a claim denied by Washington.

Venezuela will send Bolivia troops and two Superpuma helicopters, Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia said Monday. He said the Venezuelan troops would do roadwork and engineering tasks, though he didn’t say how many would go or give other details.

Venezuela, meanwhile, is spending $54 million for Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles to replace Belgian FALs, which will be turned over to a growing army reserve Chavez says would help battle U.S. troops in the event of an invasion.

U.S. officials have ridiculed Chavez’s frequent warnings of a possible invasion, but say they worry some of the assault rifles could end up in the hands of leftist Colombian rebels.

U.S. to block new arms sales
The Bush administration, citing Chavez’s close ties to Iran and Cuba and accusing Venezuela of being uncooperative in counterterror efforts, announced this month that it will block new arms sales to the country.

The U.S. had been refusing to sell Venezuela upgrades for its U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, and the latest move could make it harder for Venezuela to maintain other U.S.-made planes. Chavez maintains he no longer needs — or wants — American weaponry.

Chavez is looking to buy Russian Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets to replace the F-16s and says he plans to discuss the deal in an upcoming trip to Moscow. Venezuela also is buying 15 Russian helicopters for $200 million, and officials say they hope to buy 18 more.

The U.S. has tried to kill Venezuela’s deal for patrol boats and transport planes by blocking Spain from including U.S.-manufactured parts. But Spain says the deal is moving ahead with parts made elsewhere. And Venezuela has tacked on a $263 million deal for 48 speedboats from the Spanish company Rodman Polyships.

Chavez began upgrading Venezuela’s arsenal in 2004, focusing on older equipment that by some accounts was deteriorating for lack of maintenance.

The United States supplied most of Venezuela’s defense needs before a failed 2002 coup, when Washington recognized civilian leaders who briefly took Chavez’s place. Chavez was restored to power by military loyalists and street protests two days later, and accused the U.S. of involvement in the coup. Washington denied it.

Where are the government’s priorities?’
Some critics complain the defense money could be better spent on fighting crime.

“Where are the government’s priorities?” presidential candidate Julio Borges asked. “What the government invests in the military is much larger than what it invests in security in the entire country.”

But Chavez adviser Gen. Alberto Muller says the country spent far more in the 1980s on warplanes, frigates and tanks — all from the United States.

Venezuela’s spending is less than neighboring Colombia, which spent $6.3 billion on defense last year. The United States will spend roughly $500 billion this year, including the war costs for Iraq and Afghanistan.

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