By Kathleen T. Rhem
MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Oct. 3, 2006 – Nations in this region are concerned over recent arms sales by Venezuela, several officials attending a security conference here said yesterday. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, along with defense ministers from 32 other Western Hemisphere nations, are meeting here this week to discuss issues of mutual concern. Several ministers mentioned Venezuela as an issue of concern, U.S. leaders attending the talks said.
Ministers from Latin American nations expressed "concern that some of the things arriving in that country could conceivably end up in the hands of terrorist groups, the (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC) or other groups," Rumsfeld said.
Countries in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, are concerned over Venezuela's recent purchase of 100,000 rifles from Russia and other purchases of high-performance fighter aircraft and boats.
"I can understand neighbors being concerned, and I guess each county has to make a judgment as to what they do, how they invest their money, what they purchase," Rumsfeld said.
Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who is responsible for military operations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean, said that even a year ago countries in this region weren't as concerned about Venezuela as a threat. Now many are concerned, he said. "(There is) some concern about the uptick in weapons purchases," he said, noting that countries wonder, "Is it indeed a modernization, or is it something else?"
Craddock said countries have expressed more concern over the past few months "with regard to transparency and the volume" of weapons and other military equipment moving into Venezuela. Latin American nations, through the Organization of American States, have an agreement in place to report pending weapons purchases and completed purchases, as well as to declare the reason for such purchases.
"Arms sales everywhere in the region need to be transparent," Craddock said. "They need to comply with provisions of the OAS with regard to weapons purchases, sales (and) provisions for registering such sales." It's also important to look at countries' intent regarding weapons sales, Craddock said. Purchases of military equipment are reasonable if a country needs help with internal security threats or external threats on their sovereign territory, he said.
However, Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him, "I don't know of anyone threatening Venezuela."