Hugo Chavez
Mikhail Metzel  /  AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves while arriving in Moscow on Wednesday. Chavez said Wednesday that his oil-rich nation will sign major arms deals in Moscow to acquire Russian fighter jets.
updated 7/26/2006 3:12:12 PM ET 2006-07-26T19:12:12

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez appears to take pleasure in provoking the United States, lucky for him, because the idiosyncratic leader’s latest world tour is not playing well in Washington.

The self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary turned up at a trade meeting with Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro last week, then announced an anti-imperialistic alliance with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — another U.S. foe.

Chavez — who regularly cracks jokes about the Bush administration in his criticisms of U.S. “imperialism” — plans to buy $1 billion of arms from Russia and visit Iran and Vietnam, the latter a country he refers to as “North Vietnam”.

Chavez is expected to sign a deal in Moscow this week to seal the purchase of about two dozen Russian fighter jets, several helicopters and a license to build a Kalashnikov assault rifle factory.

Washington is fuming. Having tried to block Chavez from replacing aging military equipment, it has watched as Russia welcomed Chavez with opens arms into its munitions factories.

“We repeatedly talked to the Russian government that the arms purchases planned by Venezuela exceeded its defensive needs and are not helpful in terms of regional stability,” U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters on Tuesday. “We certainly hope that Russia will reconsider.”

A trip to Belarus
Chavez spent the last few days in Belarus, touring Stalin-era military defenses and watching military parades with fellow maverick Lukashenko, who oversees a Soviet-style command economy.  

More than just needling Washington with his controversial friends, Chavez is quite serious in his desire to build a bloc of nations willing to counter U.S. influence in the world, analysts say.

He is also trying to win a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council to balance Washington’s influence. Last year, Chavez courted an alliance with Iran just as the nation was facing international criticism over its nuclear program.

“Chavez has embarked on a vision of a multipolar world,” Venezuelan political scientist Jose Vicente Carrasquero said. “He wants to generate the idea that the unipolarity represented by the United States can disappear.”

The Venezuelan leader signed agreements on Tuesday to share military and oil technology with Lukashenko, who Washington says runs the last dictatorship in Europe.

Huddling with Castro
Before that, Chavez visited the childhood home of iconic Argentine left-wing guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Castro, and both men slammed U.S. “imperialism” during a meeting of the Mercosur Latin American trade bloc.

But despite the grandstanding, for the moment Venezuela and the United States need each other since the South American country is the world’s No. 5 oil exporter and the fourth largest supplier of oil to the U.S.

Chavez is hugely popular with the poor in Venezuela for channeling record oil dollar revenues into health, education and subsidized food schemes.

Flush with cash after several years of high oil prices, he has revived a project to unite Latin America as proposed by 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar, and has said the region should have a common currency and armed forces.

The oil weapon
The Bush administration is backing a bid from Guatemala in the hope of keeping Chavez off the Security Council. But Chavez is using oil largesse on his world tour to try to drum up more support.

Beyond the rhetoric, Chavez seems to be serious about wanting to build on anti-U.S. sentiment in the world.

“I think it is part bluster, it always is with Chavez, but this is someone who could stir things up and cause a lot of mischief in the world. It would be serious mistake to ignore him,” said Latin American analyst Michael Shifter from Washington think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.

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