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THE WORLD

Venezuela Asserts Right to Give Jets to Cuba or China

Vice president appears to defy U.S. in dust-up over Caracas' failure to get parts for its F-16s.

November 04, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Tweaking already strained relations with the United States on the eve of a hemispheric summit, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Thursday that his country would be within its rights in giving U.S.-made fighter jets to Cuba or China.

The controversy over the planes, a fleet of 22 F-16s sold to a previous Venezuelan administration, began Tuesday when President Hugo Chavez complained that the U.S. had refused to sell him spare parts for the aging aircraft. A deal Chavez made to buy parts from Israel was canceled after the U.S. intervened.

Chavez said Tuesday that the parts dispute might prompt him to simply give the aircraft to Cuba or China, so that those countries could "learn about the technology" -- a move that would raise U.S. security concerns. It wasn't clear Tuesday whether Chavez was joking, until Rangel's statement Thursday asserted that such a gift was permissible.

The statement appeared to challenge U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, who said Wednesday that Venezuela was contractually forbidden to sell or give away the aircraft without approval from the United States.

U.S. government sources said Venezuela had forfeited its right to buy spare parts because it would not allow the Pentagon to regularly inspect the aircraft and ensure they were secure, a standard provision of such deals. Rangel, though, said it was the U.S. that had violated the deal by denying Venezuela access to spare parts.

"The Venezuelan government by virtue of these acts is the victim once more of unacceptable pressures which correspond to the colonial vision of the George Bush administration," Rangel said in his statement.

Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the U.S., but relations between the Bush administration and Chavez's government have been touchy. The U.S. has been wary of Chavez's close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro, while Chavez has accused Washington of backing a short-lived 2002 coup against him.

Chavez has warned that the U.S. could invade Venezuela to seize the country's oil fields. On Thursday, Venezuelan troops staged a mock assault on the coastal enclave of San Juan de las Galdonas to prepare for such an event. Reports from the scene said that when the troops came ashore, hundreds of local men, women and children shouted at them, "Gringos, go home!"

The dispute over the F-16s could add to tensions this weekend at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, which both Chavez and President Bush are attending. Chavez has vowed to oppose Bush's efforts to lobby for the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas pact.

The F-16 spat is not the first between the two countries over aircraft. Last year, Venezuela gave some U.S.-built T-34 jet pilot training aircraft to Bolivia without getting approval from the United States, despite stipulations in the original transfer agreement. Venezuela ignored complaints from the U.S. that it wasn't informed before the move. The United States gave the planes to Venezuela in the 1970s, officials said.

Chavez brought up the possible gift of the F-16s to Cuba and China at a ceremony Tuesday at the presidential palace to mark the signing of a satellite production agreement with China. Representatives of the Chinese government were present, and the mention of the possible gift prompted applause and laughter.

Venezuela bought the F-16s in the early 1980s and for a long time was the only Latin American nation to possess the sophisticated warplanes, a reflection of the once-warm relations between the two countries.

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