February 28, 2008
The United States said Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is buying more arms than he needs, but there's no evidence he's giving them to Colombian rebels.
WASHINGTON -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is purchasing ''three or four times'' more weapons than he needs, a top U.S. intelligence chief said Wednesday, but there is no evidence so far he is providing arms to Colombian guerrillas.
Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the 100,000 AK-103s and AK-104 assault rifles purchased by Venezuela from Russia are going ``into armories.''
Maples and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell also told a Senate panel that the Cuban leadership shift from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl could trigger tensions and even a migration crisis.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, asked if Chávez's recent weapons purchases, especially the assault rifles, exceeded Venezuela's defense needs.
''Yes, sir,'' McConnell responded, ``probably three or four times more than what he would need.''
When asked if Chávez could use the surplus to ''destabilize neighboring governments, particularly Colombia'' and assist Colombia's left-wing FARC guerrillas, McConnell said: ``Could very well be.''
Maples then interjected, saying U.S. officials had not seen any distribution of rifles to Colombia. ''We have seen them go into armories,'' he said. ``And we do hear discussion within Venezuela about using asymmetric kinds of capabilities and tactics and empowering the population in some way, in a home guard sense.''
Chávez has argued that he needs the weapons to replace old guns and systems that Washington has refused to supply, and to equip larger reserves and militias for a guerrilla war in case of a U.S. invasion. But the purchases have triggered concerns in Washington and Latin America of a potential arms race and leakage of weapons to neighboring Colombia.
From Russia, Chávez has purchased the assault rifles, a munitions factory, 53 helicopters -- including a dozen Mi-17 military helicopters -- and 14 SU-30MK fighters.
McConnell added that on the purchase of the assault rifles, ''one of the thoughts is [Chávez] forming an internal militia to enforce his authoritarian rule.'' But when pressed if Chávez meant to arm his supporters to stifle domestic opposition, Maples said that he hasn't seen any evidence of it.
Martinez then asked if the intelligence chiefs had noted an increase in migration out of Cuba.
''We're concerned about it,'' McConnell responded, ''but nothing we've seen yet.'' He added that Cuba was witnessing the old generation ``hanging on, hanging on.''
''The key, in my view, is going to be fourth generation,'' said McConnell, referring to Cuba's increasingly restless youth. ``They're thinking new thoughts and they're asking hard questions. So how do you get from the first generation of the revolution to the fourth generation? That's going to be the question. And what my concern is there's going to be some instability in that process.''