The nation's defense minister says Latin America's foreign debt is a bigger security risk than its drug trade, insurgencies or border conflicts.

"Behind the drug trafficking and behind the subversion is the incommensurable weight of the foreign debt, which erodes and asphyxiates our economies," said Gen. Italo del Valle Alliegro."It is not just an economic problem, but a political and social problem that can create strong centers of disturbance for our systems," Del Valle Alliegro said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.

Latin American countries are struggling to pay foreign debts totaling over $400 billion. Venezuela, which owes at least $34 billion, is the region's fourth-largest debtor.

Del Valle Alliegro, named defense minister in July, said Venezuela's armed forces are committed to defending a 30-year-old democratic system.

"We have a solid and mature democracy, and our armed forces are convinced of their role of supporting the nation's civil institutions," he said.

He said Venezuela never adopted the doctrine of national security which led to military takeovers throughout Latin America because it felt the theory was "authoritarian and anti-democratic."

The theory, which broadened the scope of national defense to allow the military a legitimate political role in keeping out communism, originated in the U.S. War College and was further expanded by the Brazilian armed forces.