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US plays both Venezuela sides

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While the Bush administration engages in a war of words with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the US government has been giving permits to American arms dealers to sell weapons, tear gas, and other riot-control equipment to Venezuela.

At the same time, the US Congress has indirectly funded anti-Chávez pro-democracy groups.

"It's a bizarre working at cross- purposes," says Adam Isacson, who follows Venezuela for the left-leaning Center for International Policy in Washington. "You have bad relations with this government, and you're selling them the means to put down opposition protests."

Defense and Commerce department records show that in 2002, Washington issued licenses to export to Venezuela more than 7,000 pistols and rifles and 22 million rounds of ammunition, as well as riot-control equipment and interrogator sets. In 2003, it issued licenses for $43 million in military equipment sales, including a million cartridges, 1,000 pistols, and ammunition. Last year it issued $24.6 million in licenses, including $425,000 in tear gas. This year, the US has approved export licenses for police gear, restraint devices such as leg irons, stun gun-type arms and chemical agents.

During this time, the US has been critical of the Chávez government's support of leftist insurgencies and curbs on political opponents. In 2002, Washington welcomed the military-backed coup that unseated Chávez for two days. And last year, the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nongovernmental organization that receives most of its funding from the US Congress, helped finance an unsuccessful recall vote against Chávez.

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