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Now El Loco’s pursuing the bomb

RUSSIA’S alliance with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez just keeps getting tighter - and worse for America. Now, Moscow could be putting “El Loco” on the road to getting the bomb.

Russia has already sold billions worth of arms to Chavez, and recently flew two strategic bombers to Venezuela in a show of solidarity and force. A Russian flotilla will soon arrive in Caribbean waters for joint naval exercises.

But the latest deviltry came at a Moscow summit late last month, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered Chavez assistance in building a nuclear reactor.

During the Russian visit, Chavez said: “Russia is ready to support Venezuela in the development of nuclear energy with peaceful purposes, and we already have a commission working on it.”

Peaceful purposes—right. Venezuela, one of the world’s top energy producers, has about as much need for nuclear power as, well, Iran does.

This could be the start of the first new nuclear-weapons program in this hemisphere in decades. Rivals Argentina and Brazil gave up their dream of joining the once-exclusive nuclear club in the early 1990s; though each has nuclear power, neither has been willing to cooperate with Venezuela on atomic affairs.

It should come as no surprise that Chavez might be interested in nuclear know-how beyond power generation. He’s clearly bent on building one of the region’s most powerful militaries to advance his socialist revolution, intimidate his neighbors and project power—and keep Washington at bay. He’s already bought more than US$4 billion in Russian arms—including advanced fighters, combat helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles.

Another US$1 billion or so in advanced Russian air-defense systems, main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and diesel submarines may still be in the pipeline to Caracas.

And the Russian press reports that weapons sales to Venezuela over the next 10 years could top another US$5 billion. Plus, Chavez has offered Moscow access to his nation’s airfields and bases.

Making the Russian nuclear proposal more worrying are Chavez’s tight ties with the regime in Iran. He’s surely green with envy at how Tehran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear-weapons program give the United States strategic indigestion. He especially likes the intended deterrent effect that these programs will have on American freedom of action.

The odds of Chavez pursuing only a peaceful nuclear power, rather than moving in the direction of a secret nuclear-weapons program once it gets started are about as likely as Iran doing the same: zero.

Not only could Tehran help Caracas with a nuclear program that Russia starts, especially uranium enrichment, it could also sell or help develop a ballistic-missile program that could reach the continental United States. (Could help from the North Koreans be far behind?)

The Kremlin, meanwhile, looks to have found another way to milk the Venezuelan cash cow besides conventional-weapons sales. A nuclear-power plant can easily run US$1 billion apiece plus maintenance and fuel. Plus, a pumped-up Chavez could force the United States to focus on events in this hemisphere — hindering U.S. interference in the Russian near abroad (e.g., the now-independent nations of Georgia and Ukraine).

Moscow’s willingness to build Tehran’s first (nearly completed) nuclear reactor isn’t encouraging of its nonproliferation sense, especially considering the threat Iran may pose to Russia one day. Venezuela is no threat to Russia, meaning even less hesitancy on the Kremlin’s part.

The good news is that falling energy prices and construction timelines mean a Venezuelan nuclear program of any sort isn’t just around the corner. Of course, that’s what people used to say about Iran’s nuclear program, too.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. He can be reached at peterbrookes@heritage.org

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