On Saturday Venezuela will conduct some of its largest military drills in recent years. Along with the navy, army and air force, the voluntary militia forces and general public have all been invited to take part in a series of military exercises aimed at testing Venezuela's defensive abilities.
Visiting Russian forces will also join a number of exercises, including anti-aircraft drills. The Russian navy will also pay a friendly visit to Venezuelan ports.
The Russian visit is no surprise. The backbone of Venezuela's air defense system is its pair of Russian made S-300VM air defense systems, purchased in April 2013 from Moscow. Widely considered among the most effective mobile air defense systems in the world, the S-300VM can blast missiles and aircraft out of the sky from a distance of up to 200 kilometers. Saturday's exercises will the first time the Venezuelan military will use the S-300VMs in such large scale drills. Given that the S-300VM was developed and sold by Russia, its no surprise Venezuela is happy to have Russian troops on hand.
The Russians are also expected to join exercises involving BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers.
These exercises aren't the first major joint Venezuela-Russia drills. In 2008, the Venezuelan and Russian navies held three day exercises in the Caribbean, aimed at honing counter-narcotics operations. Right wing pundits in the United States quickly claimed the drills were no less threatening than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Both then and today, claims that Venezuela is adopting an aggressive military posture (supposedly exemplified in these drills) are distortions. All too often, hawks in the United States claim that Venezuela is dramatically and unnecessarily expanding its military capacity. However, the facts are that Venezuela has modernized its military in a measured manner, but is hardly out of step with its neighbors. From 2005 to 2008, Venezuela did indeed undergo a notable overhaul of its armed forces, and invested heavily in modern technology, sparking criticism from the United States – which ironically boasts the most expensive military in the world. Since then, Venezuela has slowed down new acquisitions, and today its annual military spending is roughly in line with most South American neighbors, in terms of GDP. According to World Bank figures, between 2008-2012 Venezuela's military expenditure was around 1 percent of GDP. Comparatively, U.S. military spending during the same period was around 4 percent of GDP, while Colombia was 3 percent.
The second major spanner in the works for believers in the “new Cuban missile crisis” hypothesis is the nature of Venezuela's drills. Unlike NATO's naval drills on Russia's doorstep in the Black Sea earlier this week, Venezuela's exercises are explicitly defensive.
For example, if the U.S. doesn't plan on flying warplanes in Venezuelan airspace, why should it be concerned about anti-aircraft drills? If U.S. tanks never roll across the Venezuelan countryside, how could BM-30 Smerch tests pose a threat to Washington's interests?
The obvious answer is that there are some voices in Washington that do see Venezuela's ability to defend its own sovereign territory as a threat to U.S. interests – people like Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Bob Menendez, who have long advocated for the U.S. to interfere in Venezuela's domestic politics. Indeed, the threat of a U.S. backed (or even instigated) attack on Venezuela is very real. After all, many of Venezuela's neighbors have been invaded by the United States and its proxies, including Grenada in 1983, Nicaragua in 1981, Cuba in 1961, Guatemala in 1954 and others. Yet the most oft-cited historic parallel has been that of Chile's Allende government, which was overthrown by a U.S. backed military coup in 1973.
Years before the coup actually took place, President Richard Nixon had secretly issued a letter to the CIA ordering them to make Chile's economy “scream,” while publicly denouncing Salvador Allende's government as a “threat” to the region.
Today, President Nicolas Maduro says Washington wants Venezuela's economy to scream, to soften the country for another coup attempt. President Barack Obama has already declared Venezuela a threat to the United States, while his predecessor supported a failed coup in 2002.
As Maduro stated earlier this week, “Venezuela must be prepared.”
He continued by explaining that Venezuela is a “land of peace,” and the government’s priority is protecting democracy. Specifically, he vowed to ensure no foreign intervention or internal sabotage derails parliamentary elections slated for late this year.
“I ask god for protection, if major events shake our country- with me alive or not, the order is rain or shine, parliamentary elections will happen this year whether the empire wants it or not,” he stated.
Fundamentally, Saturday's military exercises are about defending Venezuelan sovereignty, territory and democracy.