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Hugo Chávez's Geopolitical Rivalry Reaching Soaring New Heights

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Hugo Chávez's geopolitical rivalry with Washington has reached soaring new heights -- literally into space. After meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Caracas recently, the Venezuelan leader remarked that Moscow had offered to assist Venezuela in developing its own space industry including a satellite launch site and a factory. It was Putin's first visit to Venezuela, and the Russian was received with full military honors upon arrival. "This is a truly important day for the country and for Latin America," Chávez said.

Back in Washington, officials wasted no time in dismissing the Chávez-Putin tête-à-tête. "We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages," declared State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. In a caustic reference to Spielberg's E.T. perhaps, Crowley added, "to the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."

What's behind the Chávez-Putin summit? At this point, the true scope of the space deal is unclear and hopefully all future initiatives will be wholly peaceful in nature. Could the discussions have something to do with counteracting U.S. influence? Chávez himself denies it, proclaiming loudly during Putin's visit that "we aren't making alliances here against Washington."

Such claims don't ring particularly true, however. For the past few years, Venezuela's leader has been assiduously courting Russian support. Indeed, just since 2005 he has signed a dozen military agreements with Moscow worth more than $4 billion. Chávez's buying spree has included helicopters, fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. In addition, Venezuela has received more than $2 billion in credit lines for more Russian arms including T-72 tanks and an advanced anti-aircraft missile system.

To be sure, the Obama administration has stoked Venezuelan fears by proceeding with planned U.S. military bases in Colombia, a nation which borders Venezuela. Yet, there's something disturbing about Venezuela's turn towards Russia. In 2008, Chávez conducted joint military exercises with Russian vessels in the Caribbean, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great. The ship has massive firepower and can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads, as I described in an article at the time.

With Washington warning of a regional arms race, the left has chosen to stay mute about the weapons purchases or alternatively bash U.S imperialism. Within the increasingly more unsettling geopolitical milieu, Chávez rails about the need to create a "multi-polar" world in which the U.S. would not be the only superpower. Which nations are to comprise this Axis of Good? Presumably, those countries which Venezuela is seeking to ally to, including Russia but also others such as China and Iran.

Chávez is sounding increasingly defiant. When asked by reporters how the U.S. might view Venezuela's lavish defense spending, the president remarked, "We don't really care what Washington thinks." For his part, autocratic Putin sounded cynical when discussing the budding new relationship. If the U.S. didn't want to sell arms to Venezuela, he said, "Well, for us that's good."

During their meeting in Caracas, Chávez presented Putin with the so-called Order of the Liberator -- Venezuela's highest honor -- and provided the Russian leader a replica of a sword brandished by South American independence hero Simon Bolívar, the namesake of Venezuela's socialist-inspired "Bolivarian Revolution." Kissing the replica, Putin remarked, "Russia from the start has supported Latin America's struggle for independence." The Russian added, unconvincingly, "Our objective is to make the world more democratic, make it balanced and multi-polar."

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets supported Cuba but it's debatable whether Russia ever took Latin American emancipation very seriously. Today, Russia has no ideological project and its take on Latin America seems even more narrow-minded. The budding geopolitical alliance between Russia and Venezuela, which now looks as if it could reach into space, would seem to be more of a marriage of convenience than anything else.

"Satellite" Diplomacy

The same might be said of Venezuela's courting of China, a relationship which has already yielded collaboration in many realms including military. Reuters reports that Venezuela has purchased a network of radars and jet training aircraft from the Asian nation. Venezuela says the planes will be used to train local pilots and intercept drug traffickers, though the K-8 planes may also be refitted for combat as well as a missile defense radar system. Chávez, who says he is simply modernizing his armed forces, adds that "China has become one of the biggest allies of Venezuela, and Venezuela is one of the biggest allies of China in the world."

With the launching of Venezuela's Venesat-1 communications satellite in late 2008, that alliance has resulted in big benefits for Chávez. The satellite, also dubbed "Simon Bolívar," was built with Chinese know-how and was Venezuela's first. Chávez hailed the launch as an "act of liberation," designed to eliminate his country's "satellite illiteracy." Venesat-1 was the product of concerted shuttle diplomacy: Chávez has been a frequent visitor in Beijing.

Indeed, Venezuela and China have been collaborating on scientific and technological matters for the past eight years. As with Russia, Chávez hopes that growing ties with China will lead to a new multi-polar model in order "to break" U.S. hegemony. In 2005, both countries signed a contract for Venesat-1 in Caracas, and the next year Chávez went to China personally to oversee the construction of the satellite costing more than $200 million.

The satellite, which is designed to provide radio, television and internet in three band frequencies, and whose signal will extend all the way from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, will facilitate not only broadcasting but also distance learning and medical services. In southeastern Venezuela, a financially poor and rugged region where land lines are expensive to build and maintain, Venesat-1 will provide welcome telecommunications coverage.

From an economic and social standpoint, that is certainly a welcome development: for years, satellite-based networks have been concentrated in Venezuela's higher-income, more heavily populated regions. Venesat-1 by contrast will help to facilitate distance education and bring the internet to schools and homes across Venezuela.

The orb will also lead to great advances in "telemedicine," the sending of medical tests of patients from remote areas via internet to medical centers for speedy diagnosis. This is particularly helpful for Warao Indians, a tribe residing in an easterly region of the Orinoco River Delta. Through telemedicine, the Warao will be able to consult specialists working in Venezuela's best hospitals.

Venezuela's Houston Mission Control

Let's not kid ourselves, however: Venesat-1 also fulfills some valuable political objectives. Chávez himself has remarked that "a satellite at the service of capitalism is launched to make money, but Simón Bolívar will benefit development and the integration of our people." A satellite will help Chávez proceed with his agenda of politically integrating like-minded regimes throughout the region.

Reportedly, the first users of Venesat-1 have included the very vocally pro-Chávez public station Canal 8, as well as Telesur, an interesting pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela [for those interested in exploring the politics surrounding Telesur and the media in Venezuela, see my chapter on the subject in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left]. Chávez says Venesat-1 will strengthen Venezuela's sovereignty by overcoming the constant U.S. "media bombardment."

El Sombrero is a town lying some 200 miles south of Caracas in Central Venezuela. Recently, rolling farming landscape has been transformed by the arrival of satellite technology. Chávez's version of Houston mission control, El Sombrero houses satellite dishes as well as a radar facility which has employed both Venezuelan and Chinese scientists. Above the entrance of the facility there's a massive sign reading "Patria, Socialismo o Muerte" -- Fatherland, Socialism or Death. Nearby lies an air force base where Russian Sukhoi fighters take off constantly from a landing strip.

Daniel Varnagy, a telecommunications expert from Simon Bolívar University, told the BBC that Venesat-1, which followed the nationalization of Venezuela's telecommunications sector, could give the government the possibility of interfering with communications. "Chávez is trying to protect his political project and his own person. He believes he's being pursued and spied on by other countries," Varnagy said.

Venezuelan authorities however insist their intentions are peaceful, and rule out any military or espionage uses. Venesat-1, Chávez asserts, is designed to lead towards the "construction of socialism." The Venezuelan leader adds that Latin countries "spend millions of dollars in satellite services, almost all of them monopolized by big international companies. It is the domination of space." Hardly amused by such fiery rhetoric, Washington reportedly requested that China suspend the launch of Venesat-1, a plea which Beijing flatly disregarded.

Another Space Race?

Chávez is correct in criticizing the excesses of U.S. foreign policy and his concern about American dominance over the space industry is understandable. In light of U.S. high handedness in Latin America, it's reasonable that countries like Venezuela would want to build up their own space industry in an attempt to rival the technological edge of their northern neighbor. To be sure, Venesat-1 will also be put to some beneficial logistical and social uses [though it could also be abused].

The problem is not there, but in the overall geopolitical context in which Venezuela finds itself. In an effort to build up his "multi-polar world," Chávez has allied himself with anti-democratic countries like China and Russia. Chávez's relations with these two have a technological component, but the alliances have taken on an increasingly diplomatic and political hue and it is here where Venezuela gets into ideological contradictions.

In an effort to satisfy China, Chávez has been making bizarre statements backing up Beijing's repression in such far flung corners of the globe as Tibet [for more on this, readers can go to my website and read this article]. Though the world would be a better place without a sole superpower like the U.S., Chávez's multi-polar vision is problematic and could very well make things worse. What's more, in a political sense Venezuela's alliances are making a mockery of Chávez's calls for "21st century socialism."

Another undesirable result of these alliances has to do with military strains. Tensions on the high seas between Russia and Venezuela on the one hand and the U.S. on the other are bad enough. Could we now see a similar drama in space? The last space race, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States, exacerbated superpower tensions and made the world a very unsafe place to live.

NASA, beset with fluctuating budgets and the political whims of ever changing administrations and congresses, has experienced a relative decline in recent years. While such a decline was not such a huge concern following the end of the Cold War, America's once clear dominance of space is now being challenged by other nations. Russia has been a leader in space launches, but currently China is a key player in human spaceflight. Indeed, China became just the third nation after the United States and Russia to send its own astronauts out on a spacewalk.

Evan Ellis, a consultant with technology firm Booz Allen Hamilton, told the Los Angeles Times that Venesat-1 was an example of "strategic relationships" China had been able to acquire because the United States no longer "closely defends its exclusive presence" in Latin America.

"Traditionally, Chinese diplomacy has been cautious there for fear of provoking us and endangering its U.S. trade relationship," Ellis declared. "But it's become bolder in its affairs, not just with relatively neutral countries, but even with a country like Venezuela, which is openly hostile to the United States."

The new competition has some on Capitol Hill growing concerned. During a hearing of the House's subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last year, ranking Republican of Texas Pete Olson remarked "We should never ever cede American leadership." With Russia and now China promoting space ties with many new nations such as Venezuela, there is sure to be much hand wringing in Washington in the not too distant future.

All of a sudden, the space industry has become pretty fluid. It's a situation with unforeseen consequences for the traditional players but also for up and coming countries like Venezuela, a medium-sized nation which has now chosen to insert itself into the wider geopolitical milieu.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, just released by Palgrave-Macmillan, and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website at http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/.