Weird ending to Russian president's first Venezuela visit

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 27, 2008 

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela _ A strange thing happened Thursday moments after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez boarded a Russian destroyer docked here.

Bodyguards for the two men scuffled at the head of the gangplank.

It lasted less than a minute, and it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the two leaders during the first trip ever by a Russian president to Venezuela.

But the tussle suggested the difficulties in establishing deep ties between two nations with a shared interest in showing the United States that they can’t be pushed around _ but with sharply different cultures and languages.

With four warships making Russia's first post-Cold War visit to Venezuela for joint maneuvers aimed at deepening relations, analysts have questioned the compatibility of the two navies.

Russia’s fleet is organized along Cold War lines to engage the United States.

Venezuela has 17 vessels that concentrate on combating drug trafficking, particularly cocaine smuggled from neighboring Colombia meant for the United States or Europe.

Neither Chavez nor Medvedev professed any concern about potential pitfalls.

Chavez signed a deal aboard the ship to buy two Russian Ilyushin II-96 passenger airplanes.

"I'm overwhelmed with emotion," Chavez said.

Non-skeptics can point out, of course, that the Soviet Union served as Cuba’s patron state for nearly 30 years before the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s.

“But Russia is now the most capitalist country in the world,” said Mikhail Makeev, a Caracas-based correspondent for ITAR-Tass, the Russian state news agency.

Under Chavez, Venezuela is practicing “21st century socialism.” The Chavez government has been nationalizing private companies, setting prices for basic goods and spending billions of dollars a year in food, educational and medical subsidies for the poor.

Chavez is also using capitalism as a punching bag for the global economic crisis.

Russia is also seeking to rebuild ties with Cuba. Medvedev flew there on Thursday after 24 hours in Venezuela, on the final leg of a week-long trip to Latin America that included stops in Peru and Brazil.

Analysts in Russia said Medvedev came to Venezuela with dual motives.

He wanted to sell more weapons to Venezuela, which already has purchased $4.4 billion of Russian arms since 2005.

Medvedev also wanted to respond to the Bush administration’s decision to send a ship to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia following that country’s conflict with Russia in August.

“As an answer, Russia will send its ships to the American zone of interest,” said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military analyst for the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal (Daily Journal).

Chavez said the visit shouldn’t bother the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed, saying on Wednesday that the United States retains “the preponderance of power” in the Western Hemisphere.

“A few Russian ships is not going to change the balance of power," she added.

Joint exercises between the Russian vessels _ led by the Peter the Great, a cruiser _ and the Venezuelan ships are scheduled to begin on Dec. 1.

Communications will have to be better than the dispute that led to Thursday’s scuffle.

It appeared to begin when beefy Russian bodyguards blocked Chavez’s protectors from following him up the gangplank onto the Admiral Chabanenko. The Venezuelan bodyguards tried to push their way through. One Venezuelan official grabbed the back collar of a Russian bodyguard.

After Medvedev and Chavez had driven away several hours later, a Russian official named Valery Nikitin downplayed the incident.

“There’s nothing,” he said. “Everything is fine.”

A Russian bodyguard standing alongside was asked to comment.

“Nyet! Nyet!” he replied.

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