President Barack Obama was criticized by conservatives recently for a couple of handshakes and photo opportunities with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas.
In a news conference after the summit, on April 19, 2009, Obama dismissed those critics, saying the Venezuelan military is not consequential enough to worry about.
According to the Washington Post, Obama said, "Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States. They own Citgo," the retail arm of Venezuela's national oil company. "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."
Chavez has significantly increased the Venezuelan defense budget in recent years, and so we wondered about the 1/600th figure.
First, the numbers. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Venezuela had a defense budget of $3.3 billion in 2008, up from $2.6 billion in 2007. By comparison the United States is spending $711 billion on the military this year, including the cost of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Obama is slightly underestimating the Venezuelan defense budget. It is actually about 1/215th the size of the United States'.
The size and firepower of U.S. defense forces also dwarf Venezuela's. But Chavez has made headlines in recent years for his efforts to ramp up and modernize the Venezuelan military, purchasing nearly $3 billion worth of assault rifles, fighter jets and helicopters from Russia. Venezuela also has made large defense purchases from Spain, Belarus and China, for everything from patrol boats and ammunition to radar systems for military air operations.
Even with that, Venezuela is still "at best a second-rate regional power," said Larry Birns, director of the nonprofit Center on Hemispheric Affairs, which researches and reports on Latin American affairs.
"Historically, the Venezuelan military has been a fairly rag-tag outfit, heavily politicized and exceedingly corrupt," Birns said. Even with Chavez's efforts to improve the military, "They just don't have the stuff that could pose a serious threat to the United States."
According to a May 2007 analysis prepared by COHA research fellow Alex Sanchez, "Even if Venezuela is upgrading its military more than other countries in its category, it is most likely doing so for defensive purposes. It would be ludicrous to believe that the country would launch any kind of military aggression against the U.S., shooting at Stealth bombers with rifles."
So, yes, Obama's numbers were a little off. We're not going to ding him too hard for that, though, as his overall point is correct. And Obama's use of the word probably 1/600th suggests it is more of a guestimate than a hard statistic. The Venezuelan military is indeed a tiny fraction of the size of the U.S. military. And so we rule his statement Mostly True.