WASHINGTON — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is purchasing "three or four times" more weapons than he needs, the U.S. intelligence chief said Wednesday, but there's no evidence so far that he's providing arms to Colombian guerrillas.
This is the first time that senior U.S. officials have said on the record that the 100,000 AK-103s that Venezuela is purchasing are, in the words of the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Maples, going "into armories."
Maples and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell also told a Senate panel that the Cuban transition from the old guard to a newer generation could trigger tensions and even a migration crisis.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez asked whether Chavez's recent weapons purchases, especially assault rifles, exceeded Venezuela's defense needs.
"Yes, sir," McConnell responded, "probably three or four times more than what he would need."
When he was asked whether Chavez could use the surplus to "destabilize neighboring governments, particularly Colombia," and assist the leftist insurgency known as FARC, McConnell said, "Could very well be."
Maples noted, though, that the United States hadn't seen any distribution of rifles to Colombia.
"We have seen them go into armories," he said. "And we do hear discussion within Venezuela about using asymmetric kinds of capabilities and tactics and empowering the population in some way, in a home guard sense."
Venezuela's purchases of weapons, especially from Russia, have triggered concerns in Washington and in Latin American capitals of a potential arms race. Venezuelan officials argue that they're retiring old weapons and replacing weapons systems that the United States refuses to supply. Venezuela argues that as a percentage of gross domestic product, it spends less on defense than many other nations do.
From Russia, Chavez has purchased 100,000 AK-103 rifles, 53 helicopters — including a dozen Mi-17 military helicopters — and 14 SU-30MK jet fighters.
"One of the thoughts is forming an internal militia to enforce his authoritarian rule," McConnell said of the possible motives for purchasing the rifles.
Regarding Cuba, Martinez asked whether the intelligence chiefs had noted an increase in migration from the island nation, which last weekend completed a transition from Fidel Castro — now officially retired as president — to his brother Raul.
"We're concerned about it," McConnell responded, adding that intelligence agencies haven't seen any increase yet.
"The key, in my view, is going to be the fourth generation," said McConnell, referring to Cuba's increasingly restless youth. "They're thinking new thoughts and they're asking hard questions. So how do you get from the first generation of the revolution to the fourth generation? That's going to be the question. And what my concern is there's going to be some instability in that process."
"A failure to deliver could increase concerns," Maples said. "And something we have to be attuned to . . . is looking for any indicators that the dissatisfaction is going to reach a level where a migration from the island might take place."
Martinez agreed that the migration issue is a threat to U.S. security but noted that the United States should seek democracy in Cuba and the concern should "not just be the fear of a mass migration."