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Clinton Urges Transparency in Venezuelan Arms Purchases

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday called for transparency on the part of Venezuela in an arms buildup by the Hugo Chavez government that U.S. officials believe threatens regional stability. Clinton spoke at a meeting with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, who said Latin American governments should combat poverty rather than acquire weapons.

Clinton's comments at a joint press event with the Uruguayan leader were the highest-level expression of U.S. concern thus far about a Venezuelan arms buildup that gained momentum with an announcement this week that the South American state will buy Russian battle tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.

Venezuelan President Chavez said in Moscow Sunday he had obtained a $2.2-billion line of credit from Russia for 90 T-72 tanks and an advanced long-range air defense system.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations since the populist Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998 have been increasingly difficult, and he said in Moscow the new arms are to counter a U.S.-Colombian agreement last month under which U.S. forces will have access to several Colombian military bases.

Clinton said Venezuela's arms acquisitions outpace those of all other South American countries and raise questions about a possible regional arms race.

"We urge Venezuela to be transparent [in] its purchases, clear about its purposes. They should be putting in place procedures to insure that the weapons that they buy are not diverted to insurgent groups or illegal organizations, like drug trafficking gangs and other criminal cartels. So there is concern that we have expressed, and we'll continue to raise with other countries in the region. And we hope that we can see a change in behavior and attitude on the part of the Venezuelan government," Clinton said.

For his part, President Vazquez - who has headed Uruguay's center-left government since 2004 - refrained from any direct mention of Venezuela's arms purchases.

But the Uruguayan leader, a doctor by training, lamented that Latin American governments are devoting growing resources to armaments rather than dealing with pressing social needs including health and education. He spoke through an interpreter.

"Not only is our country worried, but we have already expressed time and again our position against an arms race. We believe it is quite inconvenient for the region to devote such significant economic resources to purchasing arms. But it's a fact and we can't deny it that the countries are buying weapons. To make things worse, our region is the region that has the worst distribution of wealth. Under those conditions it is worse still to be devoting those resources to weapons," Mr. Vazquez said.

Under questioning, Clinton said the United States is ready to work with whatever candidate wins Uruguay's presidential election in October.

She said the good relationship the United States has had with Mr. Vazquez' left-leaning government underscores the Obama administration's commitment to deal productively with Latin American leaders from across the political spectrum.