Venezuela agrees to buy Spanish warships
Over U.S. objections, Venezuela purchased eight frigates and 12 military aircraft worth about $2 billion.
BY PETER WILSON
CARACAS - Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, signed agreements for the purchase of $2 billion worth of Spanish military transport aircraft and frigates over U.S. objections.
Venezuela purchased eight frigates and 12 military aircraft, Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia said during televised signing ceremonies. Maniglia didn't give a value of the sale. The Financial Times said Nov. 25 that the sale is worth about $2 billion.
Venezuela's military purchases have been questioned by the United States, which has said the buildup poses a threat to stability in the Western Hemisphere. Since March, Venezuela has purchased $240 million in Russian arms, including helicopters and rifles.
''This will be a point of contention between Madrid and Washington,'' said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with New York-based research and consulting firm Eurasia Group. The agreement ``will also help Spanish firms, like Repsol YPF, receive preferential access to Venezuela's oil reserves.''
Spain will sell Venezuela four frigates for coastal defense, as well as four ocean-going frigates, Spain Defense Minister Jose Bono said. The country's state-owned Navantia shipyard will construct the frigates, Bono said.
The contracts for the 12 aircraft, which include 10 transport planes and two maritime surveillance craft, was signed with Spain's Construcciones Aeron�uticas.
Bono defended Spain's decision to sell weapons to Venezuela. Previous Venezuelan purchases of Russian military helicopters and rifles drew criticism from U.S. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
''These are not arms to be used for attacks,'' Bono said. ``These are for self-defense.''
Venezuela President Hugo Ch�vez, elected in 1998 and reelected in 2000, has sought to build up his country's armed forces, which previously relied mostly on U.S. weaponry.
''This sale is in line with Venezuela's efforts to modernize many of branches in its armed forces,'' Esteruelas said. ``Many of these purchases are designed to move away from equipment that was almost uniquely sourced to the U.S.''
Ch�vez, 51, has repeatedly accused the United States of seeking his assassination or overthrow. The former paratrooper said during the signing ceremonies that the South American country had the right to purchase weapons for its own self-defense without accounting to anyone.
''We used to be a colony of the North American empire,'' Ch�vez said. ``Now we're free.''