China continues to be the most important supplier of weapons systems to Venezuela, Venezuelan nongovernmental Organization (NGO) Control Ciudadano revealed in its November 2021 report Bolivarian Armed Forces, Acquisition, Reception, and Incorporation of Weapons and Military Equipment, 2017-2021 Period. According to the report, China and Russia have remained as the top two arms suppliers to the South American country in the last five years, although acquisitions are much lower than in previous years, due to the collapse of the Venezuelan economy.
The report is based on public information and publications released by the regime, the Armed Forces, the defense industry, arms manufacturers, international organizations, and the international press.
According to the NGO’s reports, by 2010 China had dethroned Russia as Venezuela’s top military provider. From 2005 to 2021, Russia was awarded 39 defense acquisition contracts, the majority of which were under Hugo Chávez (until 2012). Those dropped to only three in the 2013-2016 period. On the other hand, China was awarded 49 contracts from 2005 to 2021, beginning with 19 in 2005-2012, followed by 25 for the 2013-2016 period.
“There was a certain level of dissatisfaction [with Russian equipment] and they [the Venezuelan regime] looked for other alternatives … because of the price and the possibility of credit [backed by oil]”, Andrei Serbin Pont, an Argentine foreign policy analyst and director of the regional think tank Regional Coordinator for Economic and Social Research (CRIES, in Spanish), told Diálogo.
“Russia, moreover, has failed to meet deadlines for the installation in Venezuela of plants for the production of rifles and ammunition and aircraft training and maintenance centers, which were contracted in 2006,” Control Ciudadano said in its 2013-2016 report.
The political repression in Venezuela that began in 2014, and continues to this day, was also reflected in the purchases: The bulk of China’s contracts, starting in 2013, has been for anti-riot gear. “During 2014 and 2015, the largest acquisition of anti-riot equipment and systems destined for the Bolivarian National Guard stands out,” Control Ciudadano noted.
“Purchases from China are more related to internal control, which is the priority in short-term scenarios. The external enemy is more rhetoric than anything else,” security and defense analyst Francine Jacome, executive director of the Venezuelan Institute for Social and Political Studies (INVESP, in Spanish), told Diálogo.
In an October 2020 report, the Georgetown Security Studies Review (GSSR), a publication of the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies, pointed out that the Nicolás Maduro regime has been harnessing Chinese-imported military equipment to suppress anti-regime demonstrations, such as with the use of Chinese-manufactured armored vehicles in 2014 and 2019 to crack down on protestors. “It is clear that the weapons that the regime has already stockpiled […] enhance the repressive capabilities of security enforcers,” the report said.
Attorney and human rights advocate Rocío San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, denounced the “opacity” in the acquisition processes of weapons and military equipment, which, she said, are not centralized within the Ministry of Defense, but are carried out by different entities of the public administration, while “contracts are partially executed over time, and there is no verifiable ante and post controls of military sales in Venezuela.”
For GSSR, continued Chinese arms sales raise two important issues: these deepen Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis and could also prove disastrous to regional security if non-state armed groups were to get a hold of Maduro’s arsenal.