July 23, 2008
MINSK, Belarus -- Venezuela signed over three more oil fields to a joint venture with Belarus on Wednesday, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declaring that the two nations were strongly united in their resistance to "U.S. imperialism" and Washington's "lackeys."
The fields were signed over after Chavez met President Alexander Lukashenko, the hard-line leader of the ex-Soviet state whom the United States has called Europe's last dictator.
The joint venture was established last year with Chavez promising to supply Belarus' oil needs for the next century as a sign of solidarity. Belarus relies on Russia for oil, but has troubled relations with Moscow.
The new fields will roughly triple the joint venture's capacity to 2 million tons of oil a year, Belarus' first deputy prime minister Sergei Semashko said at the signing.
Chavez, on his third visit here, praised Belarus as an ally and renewed his vehement criticism of the United States.
"We are fighting against one and the same opponent _ imperial America and the countries that are its lackeys," he said. Addressing Lukashenko, he added: "You know we are winning, but it's a long battle and we cannot say we've won yet."
Lukashenko awarded him the Order of the Friend of the People.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has harshly cracked down on opposition and independent news media. The United States has imposed sanctions aimed at forcing a reduction of pressure on the opposition, but to little apparent effect.
Chavez came to Belarus after a two-day visit to Russia, where he said that military cooperation with Russia was proceeding "at full speed," the Interfax news agency reported.
The agency also said Chavez had suggested Russia open a military base in his country, but the Venezuelan government said in a statement Wednesday that no such offer was made.
Interfax quoted Chavez as saying Venezuela was in the process of re-equipping its army and purchasing Russian fighter jets _ Su30s _ and parts for an integrated anti-aircraft system.
Venezuela, which spent $4 billion on international arms purchases between 2005 and 2007, mostly from Russia and China, has a defense budget of $2.6 billion, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Venezuela is expending an awful lot of resources to obtain an awful lot of military hardware _ some would say much more than they actually need," U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Wednesday in Washington