Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Tuesday said his government may give its U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to Cuba or China and replace them with Chinese or Russian aircraft after accusing Washington of blocking purchases of U.S. military parts.
Any exchange of military hardware to those countries would break an agreement with the U.S. government on the transfer of technology without Washington's permission and further strain fraying ties between Venezuela and the United States.
A fierce critic of the U.S. administration, Chavez has rattled Washington by strengthening ties with anti-U.S. states like Cuba and promoting his self-described socialist revolution as a counterweight to U.S. regional influence.
"If they don't comply with the contract ... we can do whatever we want with these aircraft, whatever the hell we want. Maybe we'll give 10 planes to Cuba or to China so they can study the technology," Chavez said. "We don't need any U.S. imperialism."
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Caracas had no comment on Chavez's remarks.
Israeli media reported last month that Washington had blocked a sale of technology to Venezuela to upgrade its F-16 fighters, which are made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and powered by engines made by General Electric Co. or Pratt and Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp.
U.S. officials have not confirmed the reports.
Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter and a key supplier to the U.S. market, was a traditional military ally to the United States. But relations deteriorated steadily after Chavez was elected in 1998.
Chavez fosters new friendships
Chavez, a former army officer, made his statement during a ceremony to sign a contract with China to build a Venezuelan communications satellite and train Venezuelan specialists in China to manage the technology.
Washington sold Venezuela 24 F-16 fighter aircraft in the 1980s when Caracas was seen as an ally against communist Cuba. It was unclear how many of the jets are operational now.
In constant tit-for-tat sniping, Chavez often accuses Washington of planning his assassination, while U.S. officials counter he has become a regional menace by using his oil revenues to finance anti-democratic groups in South America.
Venezuela still sells most of its crude oil to the U.S. market, but Chavez has moved to diversify economic partners by strengthening ties with countries like Russia, China, Iran and his South American neighbors.
In a sign of waning relations, Chavez last year downgraded military relations with the United States by asking Washington to close down liaison offices at Venezuelan military bases.
Venezuela recently announced the purchase of automatic rifles and attack helicopters from Russia, naval vessels from Spain and military aircraft from Brazil in an effort to revamp its armed forces.