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Chávez ratchets up military spending, as Obama reaches out to Latin America

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Watching from Caracas, it's been extraordinary to see President Obama stand beside Latin American leaders as near economic equals. Emerging largely unscathed from the global economic crisis, Brazil’s first female president politely expressed sympathy for the US’s need to restore growth and then firmly pressed the Obama administration to drop protectionist tariffs against Brazilian exports ranging from oranges to aircraft.

For some Beltway observers who are still more comfortable viewing Latin America as a socialist-prone “backyard,” it must have been jarring to hear the leader of the world’s seventh-largest economy – home to one of the world’s largest oil discoveries in decades and a leader in biofuel research – essentially tell the US “we’ll drop our tariffs, when you drop yours.”

How comforting then it must be for old cold war-trained stalwarts to still have the camouflage-clad Hugo Chávez thundering away against imperialism, while amassing Russian-made weapons with oil-backed loans. Reports estimate that President Chávez has ordered more than $15 billion worth of weapons, including hundreds of tanks, helicopters, submarines, and Chinese-made fighter airplanes.

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