He vows that “nothing will stop us” from bringing “nuclear power” to Venezuela. Unfortunately, “nuclear power” is now a common coverup term for a nuclear-weapons program, such as we're seeing in Iran.
After five years of talking up his atomic aspirations without making much headway, the anti-American Chavez is finally getting somewhere.
Just two weeks ago, on one of several stops of his grand tour abroad, Chavez alighted in Russia (on his ninth visit there) to sign an agreement for the building of two 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors and a research reactor back home, according to Russian sources.
As the most popular purveyor of proliferation problems (e.g., building North Korea's and now Iran's first nuclear reactors), Russia is a perfect place to start your nuclear program.
Of course, Chavez insists he's only looking to achieve energy independence. But anyone who looks at Venezuela's vast oil wealth is understandably skeptical that peaceful power generation is his real motive.
Consider some other stops on Chavez's seven-country whistle-stop tour. In Iran, he visited his “brother” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some experts fear Caracas and Tehran may already have some small-scale nuclear projects underway. Plus, the two regimes are reportedly working on the mapping and mining of Venezuela's uranium deposits, possibly the world's largest.
This would certainly benefit Iran, whose nuke program is laboring under punitive sanctions that are meant to inhibit access to supporting materials and technology.
Clearly, getting its hands on uranium won't be a problem for Caracas. But it might trade the raw material for Iranian uranium-enrichment technology — technology that Venezuela is widely thought to have solicited from neighboring (nuclear) Brazil and Argentina. (They refused.)
Down the road, the concern is that Iran will also share with Venezuela the military dimensions of its nuclear program, such as ballistic-missile and nuke-warhead systems and technology.
The scenario has all the trappings of an over-the-horizon Cuban Missile Crisis.
Chavez also popped into Libya to see Moammar Khadafy, who had his own nuclear aspirations until a few years ago. Libya's program was helped by Pakistan's proliferator extraordinaire, A.Q. Kahn, and may still have some expertise to share.
He stopped in Syria, too, which had been (and may still be) receiving nuclear assistance from North Korea. (Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor being built by North Korea in Syria in a 2007 raid.)
Chavez didn't visit North Korea on this tour, but he plainly wants to go — he reportedly canceled a trip to see “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il earlier this year, after some opposition from the Venezuelan parliament.
But it's not just the possibility that we'll see a nuclear threat emanating from Venezuela in the years to come that should concern us; others in the region will feel the need to react, too. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, for one, already has, reportedly saying this week that a Venezuelan nuclear program poses a serious threat to Latin American security.
Not all Chavez's neighbors have the resources — but big powers like Brazil and Argentina, which had bomb programs in the '70s and '80s, might pursue nukes again. (Similarly, a number of Arab states are hedging against Iran's nuke-quest with their own new nuclear programs.)
What was President Obama's reaction to Chavez's Russian deal? “Our attitude is that Venezuela has rights to peacefully develop nuclear power ... We have no incentive nor interest in increasing friction between Venezuela and the U.S., but we do think Venezuela needs to act responsibly.”
Talk about the triumph of hope over experience.
It's clear: We're in the early stages of a potentially big problem. Being in denial or waiting to get tough, as we did with the Iranian nuclear program, likely would have the same ineffectual results.
Like an aggressive disease, a nuke program under Chavez would only get worse with time unless steps to deal with it are taken early on. The time to start is now.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in The Boston Herald