Chavez approves Spain for sale of arms in face of U.S. opposition

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez applauded Spain on Sunday for moving forward on a major defense deal to sell military planes and boats to the South American country despite U.S. opposition. Chavez and Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono are set to sign a US$2 billion (Ђ1.7 billion) contract Monday for eight patrol boats and 12 transport planes, making it Spain's largest-ever defense deal. The United States last week threatened to block the sale because it involves U.S. military technology.

Chavez, speaking on his weekly TV and radio program "Hello, President," commended Spanish authorities for their firm response to "the attempts to crush (the deal) and the lack of respect of the imperialist government of the United States."

Chavez has said that the vessels and planes will be used to combat the drug trade in Venezuela. The country borders Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer.

Under the agreement, Venezuela will purchase four ocean patrol boats and four coasting vessels from Spain's state-controlled shipyard Navantia. Spanish aircraft producer EADS-Casa will supply 12 transport planes, according to Venezuela's Ministry of Information. Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia said the deal will include the "transfer of technology," as the last patrol boat would be constructed in Venezuela, allowing Venezuelans to acquire more knowledge about the military equipment.

The sale will be complete in three years, and the first shipments are due to arrive in 18 months, he said.

While Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, is a major fuel supplier to the United States, wide diplomatic rifts exist between the two countries. Chavez has repeatedly accused Washington of plans to invade his country, a charge U.S. officials deny.

The United States alleges that Chavez, an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, supports radical political movements in Latin America and is "destabilizing" to the region.

Relations between Spain and the United States have also chilled under Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who withdrew Spanish peacekeeping troops from Iraq immediately after he took office in April 2004.

Spain responded to U.S. criticism of the defense sale, saying it is strictly business and will not harm Spain's relations with the United States.

The United States and Venezuela have clashed over other recent attempts by Chavez, a former commander who led a failed coup in 1992, to modernize the country's military on the back of surging oil revenues, reports the AP. I.L.

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