On Saturday, Venezuela received and tested its first shipment of six Chinese K-8 light attack jets. President Hugo Chavez announced the purchase last year, and has said that his government plans to purchase up to forty of the K-8s. Government officials say the jets will be used for training missions and to target drug traffickers.
Chavez turned to China after a deal to buy similar military planes from Brazil’s aerospace company Embraer was aborted due to the purchase being blocked by the US government. During a ceremony which included flyovers from the new planes at an air base in the city of Barquisimeto, Chavez emphasized that he was forced to turn to China because of the US export controls. "Thank you, China. The empire wanted to leave us unarmed. Socialist China, revolutionary China appeared and here are our K-8 planes," he said on a television broadcast.
Washington has accused Caracas of starting an arms race in Latin America. Several states in the region have built up their military capabilities in recent years. The risk of conflict is perhaps greatest between Venezuela and its neighbour Colombia. Tensions have risen over American use of military bases in Colombia and alleged Venezuelan support for the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. In a $234 million deal during the past few years, Bogota bought twenty-five of the Brazilian AT-29B Super Tucano jets that Chavez failed to acquire.
Chavez has maintained that he is simply modernizing Venezuela’s military. He mentioned the need “to be well equipped and trained ... to protect our skies, our soil, our territory, which has one of the world's biggest riches of water, oil, energy and gas." Venezuela has already purchased a Chinese radar network, and has also recently done a $4 billion deal with Russia for weapons systems including tanks and fighter jets.
The openSecurity verdict: The increasingly close ties between the Chinese and Venezuelan governments make policymakers in Washington uncomfortable. Beijing’s affiliation with Chavez’s vehement anti-American regime could be considered a threat for the US, which regards Latin America as its geopolitical ‘backyard’. Washington may be being punished for the lack of attention it has accorded Latin America after 9/11, since which the focus has been the middle east.
In 2006, Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, raised concerns about the US’s relations with Latin America. In a Foreign Affairs article, he warned that the US and Latin American countries were increasingly estranged. He emphasized American disinterest in the western hemisphere throughout the last decade, and noted that support for the US had declined in several of the Latin American countries.
Consequently, rising powers such as China have had the diplomatic breathing space to gain more influence in the region. Beijing has developed close links with not only Venezuela, but also with other key states, like Brazil. The underlying Chinese rationale is its massive reliance on energy imports, in particular foreign oil. The quest for energy supply security has led the Chinese around the globe, including towards Latin America. China has entered into large oil deals with Venezuela and Brazil, in addition to other oil-related partnerships with Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.
In 2009, two deals were signed between Venezuela’s Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and Chinese state-owned oil firms CNPC and CNOOC. Venezuela already supplies China with 400,000 barrels of oil per day, but it plans to increase the volume to one million by 2013. Venezuala will form a pillar of China’s oil consumption, which by recent measures stands at around 8 million barrels a day. Echoing its investment strategy in Africa, the Chinese government has established a $4 billion development fund in Venezuela to pay for infrastructure and social projects like transport networks, housing, and schools. This much-needed cash injection will enable Chavez to implement socialist programmes and hand out financial rewards to his political supporters, making the deal a win-win for both Beijing and Caracas.
The scheduled boom in oil deliveries for China raises the question of whether Chavez plans to diversify its US-destined exports, which currently constitute sixty percent of Venezuela’s total oil exports. A decreasing reliance on the US market could create further anxiety in Washington and worsen US-Venezuela relations. American policy makers regard China’s oil diplomacy towards several ‘rogue regimes’ with a wary eye, especially in Latin America. Although Obama rescinded the US imperialist legacy in the region, the US is unlikely to abandon an exclusive ‘sphere of influence’ in the region lightly. If Sino-American relations were to become increasingly adversarial, the US will do its utmost to prevent Chinese bridgeheads reaching its backdoor.
Sri Lankan general goes on military trial while supporters protest
Sri Lanka’s former army chief, general Sarath Fonseka, appeared before a military court on Tuesday, as hundreds of his supporters assembled in protest near the capital. Fonseka faced charges of mixing politics with his military career, but the court martial was adjourned until next month after the general’s lawyers challenged the legitimacy of the court. Fonseka and his supporters say the trial is politically motivated, and that the government is trying to get rid of a prominent opposition figure ahead of April’s parliamentary elections.
The Sri Lankan ex-chief justice criticized the military trial yesterday, saying the court martial was unconstitutional. The retired judge, Sarath Silva, who is known to be a supporter of Fonseka, stressed that the general should not be subject to military law. He also added that the way in which Fonseka was detained was a breach of UN rights conventions, and castigated the government for a lack of democracy in an atmosphere where “there is no room for dissent.”
General Fonseka, who became popular for his role in Sri Lanka's victory against the separatist Tamil Tigers, ran in the January presidential elections against Mahinda Rajapaksa but lost. Fonseka accused the Rajapaska government of election fraud. Last month he was arrested by the government on accusations of planning a military coup.
Nigerian militants attack city with car bombs
Two car bombs were detonated outside government buildings in Warri, a principal city in Nigeria’s oil region, after a warning from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). No casualties have been reported so far. The explosion was likely intended as a symbolic act as talks between the Nigerian government and the militants proceeded in Warri.
MEND said they committed the bombings to “announce our continued presence”, after the governor for the delta region described MEND as a “media creation”. According to MEND, the people of the delta will no longer sit back and watch its wealth being monopolised by the northern elite.
MEND and other regional militants oppose the central government’s exploitation of the oil wealth of their region. The delta's inhabitants, who want to localize control of its natural resources, claim they receive an insufficient part of the oil revenues, and have protested against foreign multinationals for devastating the environment.
Since President Goodluck Jonathan took over as leader of the government, he has attempted to restore peace to the region through an amnesty programme for the rebel groups. However, the fragile peace talks could now derail should MEND carry out further threatened attacks. The militants accuse the government of reneging on promises of financial resources and training.
South African youth leader found guilty of hate speech
On Monday, a South African court convicted a prominent figure of the ruling African National Congress of using “hate speech”. Julius Malema, the ANC’s controversial youth leader, was convicted for saying that a woman who had accused President Jacob Zuma of rape had had a “nice time”.
The Johannesburg Equality Court ordered Malema to make an unconditional public apology and pay 50,000 rand ($6,700) to a centre for abused women. Malema is a divisive figure in South Africa, who is notorious for issuing polemics and insults against diverse opponents of the ANC and President Zuma. The ANC Youth League said it would appeal against the verdict.
Malema admitted to saying that the woman who had accused President Zuma of rape must have enjoyed it, since “those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and ask for taxi money." Magistrate Colleen Collins said Malema’s statement was “irresponsible”, “superfluous”, and “demeaning to women”. President Zuma, who was elected last year, was acquitted of the rape accusation in 2006, maintaining that the sex was consensual.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape per capita in the world.