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Latin American Defense Ministers Discuss Arms Buildup


Defense ministers and policy experts from the Western Hemisphere have wrapped up their conference in Nicaragua. Officials from several countries expressed concern about the military buildup in the region.

Venezuela was one of the 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries attending the security conference, Cuba was not. Despite the focus on stronger ties and cooperation, the meeting came at a time of tense relations between the United States and Venezuela.

Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Organization of American States expressed concern about a military buildup in the region that could trigger an arms race.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has recently used booming oil profits to purchase $3 billion worth of weapons from Russia, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 53 military helicopters. The fiery populist has also announced that, with Russia's help, he will open a factory to build the AK-style rifles.

"I think Venezuela's arms buildup is massive, compared to anything that went before. And it's explained by several factors. One is, of course, that Venezuela is rich in petro-dollars, and so has the money to spend. The other is that relations are very bad between the United States and Venezuela. And, President Chavez is very hostile toward the United States. Basically, he is bent on making his mark globally as an anti-imperialist, anti-United States," said Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.

Venezuela denies that its arms purchases are a threat to the region, saying they are purely for defensive purposes.

A senior policy official for Latin America at the U.S. Defense Department, James Alverson, declined to comment directly on Venezuela. But, he said the United States is concerned about increasing stockpiles of weapons in the region. "One of the areas that this conference focused on was the danger posed by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons to terrorists and insurgent groups. That is an issue for all of our countries to think about. And this conference has tried to focus on ways in which we can lessen that threat, through transparency, for example, and through the careful keeping control of which arms are out there, and who has their hands on those arms," he said.

Alverson said officials are particularly concerned about "manpads" or shoulder-fired missiles, which could be used by terrorists to shoot down civilian airliners.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his remarks to the conference, said the nations of the Americas must work together to confront common threats.

The 32 defense ministers agreed to create an international land-mine removal center in Nicaragua. Central American countries have removed thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines since their civil wars ended in the 1990's.