MOSCOW Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in an interview broadcast Sunday that Latin America needs strong friendship with Russia to help reduce U.S. influence and keep peace in the region. The interview aired as a Russian Navy squadron prepared to sail to Venezuela.
Venezuela recently hosted a pair of Russian strategic bombers and is preparing to conduct a joint naval exercise with Russia. Russian media say Chavez plans to visit Moscow Friday, his second trip in just over two months.
"Not only Venezuela, but Latin America as a whole, needs friends like Russia now as we are shedding this (U.S.) domination," Chavez told Russia's Vesti 24 television. "We need Russia for economic and social development, for all-around support, for the life of the peoples of our continent, for peace."
During the Cold War, Latin America became an ideological battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Kremlin has moved to intensify contacts with Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American nations amid increasingly strained relations with Washington after last month's war between Russia and Georgia.
The weeklong deployment of a pair of Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela and the plan to send a navy squadron there mark a projection of Russian military power to the Western Hemisphere unprecedented since the Cold War.
The nuclear-powered Peter the Great missile cruiser, accompanied by three other ships of Russia's Northern Fleet, was preparing to sail from its base on a cruise that will include a joint exercise with the Venezuelan Navy, Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said on Vesti 24 television. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted the Northern Fleet command as saying the ships will likely leave early Monday.
Russian officials had said earlier that the squadron was to head to Venezuela in November. They would not explain the change.
Russia's intensifying military contact with Venezuela appears to be a response to the U.S. dispatch to Georgia of warships carrying aid after its war with Russia. Russian officials harshly criticized the U.S. deployment to Georgia's Black Sea coast.
President Dmitry Medvedev warned this month that Russia could follow its dispatch of bombers to Venezuela by deploying forces to other friendly nations.
Under Chavez, Venezuela has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian jets, helicopters and other weapons. Chavez has repeatedly warned that the U.S. poses a threat to Venezuela.
Russia has signed weapons contracts worth more than US$4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi-17 helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. Chavez's government is in talks to buy Russian submarines, air defense systems and armored vehicles and more Sukhoi jets.
Russian and Venezuelan leaders have also talked about boosting cooperation in the energy sphere to create what Chavez has called "a new strategic energy alliance."
Russian companies Gazprom and Lukoil have signed agreements with Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA to jointly explore several Orinoco fields.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who visited Venezuela last week, announced that five of Russia's biggest oil companies are looking to form a consortium to increase Latin American operations. State-controlled Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Surgutneftegaz and TNK-BP hope to build a US$6.5 billion refinery to process Venezuela's tar-like heavy crude.
Such an investment could help Venezuela, the world's ninth-biggest oil producer, wean itself from the U.S. refineries on which it depends to process much of its crude. Already, Chavez has moved to reduce the involvement of private companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, while striking new oil development agreements with state companies from Iran and China.
"The level of our development allows us to conduct strategic projects in Latin America," Sechin said in remarks broadcast Sunday on Vesti 24 television.
And he warned the United States that it should not view the region as its own backyard: "It would be wrong to talk about one nation having exclusive rights to this zone."