Wednesday, August 10, 2005

We don't like you much, Mr. Chavez, but here are your guns ... Hard to know what the State Department was figuring on this one:
CARACAS, VENEZUELA – While the Bush administration engages in a war of words with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the US government has been giving permits to American arms dealers to sell weapons, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment to Venezuela.

At the same time, the US Congress has indirectly funded anti-Chávez pro-democracy groups.

"It's a bizarre working at cross- purposes," says Adam Isacson, who follows Venezuela for the left-leaning Center for International Policy in Washington. "You have bad relations with this government, and you're selling them the means to put down opposition protests."

Defense and Commerce department records show that in 2002, Washington issued licenses to export to Venezuela more than 7,000 pistols and rifles and 22 million rounds of ammunition, as well as riot-control equipment and interrogator sets. In 2003, it issued licenses for $43 million in military equipment sales, including a million cartridges, 1,000 pistols, and ammunition. Last year it issued $24.6 million in licenses, including $425,000 in tear gas. This year, the US has approved export licenses for police gear, restraint devices such as leg irons, stun gun-type arms and chemical agents.
To be sure, the U.S. has a rather sordid history of selling weaponry to states we disagree with politically. But most of that history occurred during the Cold War, when arms lobbyists could still use "the lesser evil" defense, according to which the U.S. needed to supply arms because if we didn't the Soviet Union would.

What's surprising about the Venezuela sales is not that that logic still holds but the specific form that the sales took. Aside from covert sales, arms transfers to foreign countries occur either as foreign military sales (FMS), in which case they're conducted by the Pentagon, or as direct commercial sales (DCS), in which case they're vetted by the State Department. The sales to Venezuela were DCS. Thus, the State Department -- and not the Pentagon -- had to grant the manufacturers involved specific export licenses for the sales to go through.

Given how anti-Chavez State Department has been, the riot-gear sales in particular are a marked departure from their official line. The only way I can read this is as a resounding testament to the strength of the arms lobby: they've long since held the Pentagon in the bag, but now it seems they can get State to cave as well, even on one of their staunchest positions.


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