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U.S. May Prevent Military Sale to Rival

Washington's feud with Venezuela may lead it to block Spain's plan to deal boats and aircraft containing American technology to Caracas.

November 24, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — In another sign of estrangement between the United States and Venezuela, Washington is holding up the sale of eight Spanish patrol boats and 12 military aircraft to the South American nation because they contain U.S.-made technology.

The State Department confirmed Wednesday that the Bush administration had objected to the $1.5-billion sale. Eduardo Aguirre, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, said the sale could be a "destabilizing factor."

"We have not decided yet whether or not to grant our permission for obtaining that technology," Aguirre said Wednesday in Madrid. "We hope in the end the transaction will not be carried out."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has framed the deal, which is scheduled to be signed Monday in his nation's capital, Caracas, as a victory in his political dispute with the United States. To maximize the political significance, he has said that Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono must be present for the signing or there will be no deal.

Spain must secure an export license from the United States to sell the boats and aircraft to Venezuela because they contain U.S. engines and instrumentation, and sale of the technology is restricted. Although the U.S. components could be replaced with parts made in Europe, the added cost would make the deal unprofitable, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, citing unnamed sources.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has strengthened commercial ties with Venezuela. Spanish energy giant Repsol is one of seven companies recently invited to explore for oil in the Orinoco Belt in eastern Venezuela.

The sale would be a boost for the Spanish economy. Spain has urged the United States to relent in its opposition to the transaction, saying the technology is "innocuous."

But the Bush administration is in no mood to do any favors for Chavez. This month, Chavez threatened to give classified F-16 jet fighters to Cuba and China because the Pentagon would not sell him spare parts. The Pentagon countered that Chavez was not allowing inspections of the aircraft to ensure that they were being kept in a secure environment.

Michael Shifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the Bush administration should be careful not to antagonize other governments because of its disputes with Venezuela.

"Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero may be a potential U.S. ally in helping to moderate Chavez's influence in Latin America, and Washington would be unwise to risk what could be critical support," Shifter said.

Bruce Bagley, a professor who heads the Latin American studies department at the University of Miami, said the deal was part of an effort by Chavez to strengthen his hand against Washington by seeking allies outside Latin America.

Chavez also has legitimate security concerns, Bagley said, including the buildup of neighboring Colombia's military under a U.S.-funded program to fight drugs and terrorism.

But U.S. policymakers see Chavez as a mischief-maker. This year, Venezuela also signed a deal to buy 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles from Russia, raising concern in the White House.


Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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