Available evidence indicates that Venezuela has shown little interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the country’s technical alliances, military trade, and nuclear cooperation with Russia and Iran, among other countries, raise some proliferation concerns.
Venezuela possesses almost no nuclear infrastructure, little nuclear expertise, and is a member of both the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Tlatelolco Treaty), and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Caracas is also a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and has adopted domestic legislation prohibiting the acquisition and development of biological and chemical weapons. Venezuela does not have a ballistic missile program, and is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). 1
As the world’s fifth largest oil exporter and a state with abundant hydroelectric resources, it is unlikely that Venezuela will require nuclear power to meet its energy needs. Additionally, until recently, open source evidence had not suggested that Venezuela might be considering pursuing nuclear weapons. The country has only one nuclear facility, very minimal nuclear expertise, and is a member of the major nuclear nonproliferation agreements and regimes. 2 Caracas became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in August 1957, after purchasing a 3 MW research reactor from the U.S. General Electric Company in 1956. The reactor, which went critical in July 1960, was operated by the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones (IVIC) under IAEA safeguards, and was officially shut down in January 1994. 3 Reportedly, the reactor site “is now used for food processing irradiation, medical sterilization and research.” 4
In February 1967, Venezuela signed the Tlatelolco Treaty, ratifying it three years later in March 1970. That treaty, which entered into force in October 2002, prohibits the acquisition, production, use, testing or possession of nuclear weapons in the region. 5 Venezuela joined the NPT in 1975 as a non-nuclear weapon state, and negotiated an IAEA Safeguards Agreement covering its nuclear activities that entered into force in March 1982. 6 In November 1983, Venezuela and Brazil signed an agreement that provided for cooperation in the research, design, development, and use of experimental and operational reactors; research on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and prospecting “for minerals with nuclear uses.” 7 There is little public information, however, on any activity carried out under this agreement. In May 2002, Venezuela was the 92nd country to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
In 1998, Hugo Chávez, a former military officer, was elected president on a populist platform dubbed the “Bolivarian Revolution,” which called for the country to use its oil revenue to support social welfare programs at home, and to counter U.S. influence in the region and around the world. 8 Chávez’s announcements since 2005 about building a nuclear power program and the nuclear cooperation alliances that he has sought may have more to do with his foreign policy goals and anti-U.S. stance than with any actual need or plan to develop either nuclear power or nuclear weapons. For example, during an October 2005 summit meeting, Chávez announced unexpectedly that Venezuela might acquire as many as a dozen nuclear power reactors from Brazil and/or Argentina. 9 The announcement took Brazilian and Argentine nuclear officials by surprise, and was viewed by many nuclear proliferation analysts as another way of challenging the U.S. administration, though Chávez may also have perceived obtaining nuclear reactors as a way to gain international prestige. 10 Both Brazilian and Argentine officials reacted warily to possible nuclear cooperation with Venezuela, and despite the existence of nuclear cooperation agreements with both countries, there is no public information indicating that Venezuela has received any nuclear technology or know-how from either country. 11
However, Venezuela’s ever-strengthening ties with Iran pose some proliferation concerns. Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, and Iran, the second largest, began to build stronger ties after Venezuela hosted the 2000 OPEC meeting in Caracas. 12 The relationship between the two countries intensified as Chávez became an outspoken supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, and a critic of Western countries that have sought UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to halt uranium enrichment and to disclose the full extent of its nuclear program and any nuclear weapons-related activities. In February 2006, when the IAEA Board of Governors voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions, only Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria opposed the decision. 13 In return for Venezuela’s support at the IAEA and the UN Security Council, Iran has entered into more than 270 energy, development, commercial, and financial agreements with Venezuela, and allegedly has invested billions of dollars in joint projects. 14 Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has indicated continued support for the alliance, and visited Iran to demonstrate his commitment to close bilateral relations. 15 The Maduro government proceeded to sign an economic and scientific deal with Iran, but the agreement does not appear to cover nuclear cooperation. 16
The United States government has expressed great concern about Venezuela’s cooperation with Iran, particularly in the nuclear area. In March 2008, Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL) reintroduced a bill (H. Res. 1049) calling for Venezuela to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. 17 The draft bill pointed to President Chávez’s “strong relationship” with Iran as demonstrated by Venezuela’s “200 bilateral agreements with Iran,” Iran’s reported offer to help Venezuela with a nuclear program, and Chávez’s strong support for Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The Venezuelan Embassy in the United States posted a point-by-point denial of the resolution’s charges, and stated: “Venezuela and Iran also have discussed cooperation on nuclear energy, but we are not aware of any significant developments as a result of these discussions.” 18
Congress did not pass a resolution designating Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism; however, in 2008, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Venezuelan companies for transferring items and funds to Iran that could contribute to WMD proliferation and help Iran circumvent UN and U.S. sanctions. 19 The Obama administration expanded sanctions sanctions against Venezuelan companies trading with Iran, and it also passed sanctions targeting Venezuelan officials for human rights abuses. 20 In September 2009, Chávez announced that Venezuela had signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran, under which Iran would help Venezuela construct a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. 21 While Chávez emphasized that Iran and Venezuela have the right to develop nuclear energy, Western countries pointed out that any transfer of nuclear technology from Iran to Venezuela would violate UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, and in particular UN Security Council Resolution 1737. 22 At the same time, Chávez and other government officials admitted that Iran had been helping Venezuela to explore remote areas of the country for uranium deposits. 23 The announcements heightened concerns that Venezuela could be aiding Iran in exchange for nuclear technology transfers, however geologists have questioned whether Venezuela even has exploitable uranium; estimates of the country’s potential deposits are based on unverified projections and might be difficult to extract. 24
Chávez also cultivated ties with Russia that resulted in a nuclear cooperation agreement in November 2008. Following an aborted coup attempt in 2002, which Chávez blamed on the United States, and deteriorating relations with the United States, Chávez turned to Russia for military equipment as well as energy cooperation. 25 Between 2005 and 2007, Chávez spent roughly $4 billion on Russian arms, including 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles (and a factory to build more in Venezuela), 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, and 53 combat helicopters. 26 In 2010 Caracas received a $2.2 billion loan to buy Russian tanks and missile systems, and the following year the country became the top importer of Russian arms for ground forces. 27
In late November 2008 during then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Caracas, Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Petroleum Rafael Dario Ramirez Carreno and Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko signed a long-anticipated general agreement on nuclear cooperation.
The agreement established a framework for:
- Joint research into controlled nuclear fusion
- Design, development, manufacture, and use of research reactors and nuclear power plants
- Production of radioisotopes for use in industry, medicine, and agriculture
- Help for Venezuela in the development of the infrastructure and legislative framework for peaceful use of nuclear energy
- Possible exploration and development of Venezuela’s uranium and thorium deposits. 28
The agreement reportedly specifies that Venezuela may not use any Russian-supplied nuclear equipment and know-how “to produce nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, nor to achieve any military objectives, and will be under the guarantees of the IAEA.” According to a Rosatom press release, the agreement will not involve the transfer of “any know-how or systems for chemical reprocessing of irradiated fuel, isotope enrichment of uranium or production of heavy water, its main components or any objects produced from them, nor uranium enriched to 20 per cent or above.” 29 Following the signing, Rosatom head Kiriyenko stated that the deal should not raise proliferation concerns because Venezuela is an IAEA member and has signed nuclear nonproliferation agreements. 30 While Venezuela is an NPT member and has signed an IAEA Safeguards Agreement, it has not yet joined the Additional Protocol, which would give the Agency broader inspection powers.
In October 2010, Chávez visited Medvedev in Moscow to oversee the signing of several oil and economic deals; the two leaders also signed an agreement spelling out their countries’ nuclear cooperation. According to press reports, under the agreement Rosatom would build a power plant in Venezuela with two 1,200 megawatt pressurized water reactors and a research reactor to produce medical isotopes and nuclear materials for other peaceful purposes. 31 Rosatom’s chief executive Kiriyenko was vague about when Russia might start building the nuclear power plant, and he indicated that the research reactor would be the priority. 32 While Chávez has touted the agreements with Russia and Venezuela’s peaceful nuclear goals, Venezuela’s nuclear projects have not progressed beyond the planning stages. In March 2011, Venezuela’s nuclear power plans were put on hold. In the wake of the nuclear accident in Japan, Chávez announced the cancellation of the Russian plan to build a power plant in Venezuela, stating “[nuclear power] is something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world.” 33 Nevertheless, recent statements by the Russian government make it unclear whether the project was cancelled or simply put on hold. In May 2012, the Russian government voted to approve the plan to build a nuclear power plant and research reactor in Venezuela. 34 The following year, in a speech highlighting the potential for investment between the two countries, President Vladimir Putin noted that the Russian company Inter RAO UES had been supplying Venezuela with gas turbines “for nuclear power plants under construction there.” 35
Since Chávez’s death in March 2013, both his successor Nicolás Maduro and President Putin of Russia have reaffirmed their commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries. 36 Venezuela and Russia have continued their cooperation in the oil sector. 37
In 2015, the United States arrested a U.S. nuclear scientist for attempting to sell nuclear secrets to an FBI agent whom the scientist believed to be a Venezuelan intelligence agent. 38 The Venezuelan government claimed it was not aware of the scientist’s efforts.
The collapse of oil prices has devastated the Venezuelan economy, causing widespread commodity shortages, inflation, and capital fight. 39 The economic and social chaos has produced uncertainty about the future of Venezuela’s government. U.S. intelligence officials have warned about the possibility of regime change, potentially led by a military coup. 40 The potential composition of a new government, as well as its implications for Venezuela’s strategic partnerships with Russia and Iran, remains unclear.
There are no indications that Venezuela has developed or is developing biological weapons. Venezuela ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) on 18 October 1978. According to its United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 reports, it has adopted legislation prohibiting the acquisition, manufacture, and development of chemical and biological weapons. 41 While Venezuela denies any interest in acquiring biological weapons, it does have close ties with two countries, Iran and Cuba, which have extensive biotechnology capabilities, and have in the past been suspected of pursuing biological warfare programs. Venezuela has signed numerous technology development agreements with Iran, and a Memorandum of Understanding “pledging full military support and cooperation.” 42 Venezuela also has a technology trade agreement with Cuba, and in the past has received pharmaceutical products from Cuba as debt payments. In an October 2009 UN General Assembly meeting, a representative for Venezuela, Liseth Ancidey, indicated that global biological weapons elimination is a priority for the country. Ancidey noted that Venezuela supported a program for the “full implementation” of the BTWC, and further, that “it was holding consultations to establish a national body for its implementation and had drafted a code of bio-security to govern the conduct of scientists and researchers working in that field.” 43
Venezuela ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 3 December 1997. In its second Note to the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 Committee, Venezuela declared it had established a National Authority “for the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.” 44 In two other submissions to the Security Council, the Venezuelan government enumerated the various laws it had enacted to prohibit chemical weapons. 45
In an October 2009 UN General Assembly meeting, Venezuela’s representative Ancidey, “reaffirmed” the importance of eliminating chemical weapons. In reference to the CWC, she said that Venezuela “supported full transparency in the implementation of the Convention, as well as its universality.” She also noted the concern of her country that states possessing such weapons might not eliminate them by the agreed upon 2012 deadline. 46
Venezuela does not have a long-range missile program, and subscribes to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), which calls for limits on the production, testing, and export of ballistic missiles. However, Caracas is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and has been accused of aiding Iran’s missile program, and plans to import Russian missile defense systems.
The United States has sanctioned Venezuelan companies for providing aid to Iran that could benefit that country’s missile program. In August 2008, and again in February 2013, the U.S. Department of State under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan Military Industries Companies (CAVIM) for the transfer of items either barred by multilateral export control lists or otherwise “having the potential to make a material contribution to the development of weapons of mass destruction of cruise or ballistic missile systems.” 47 Two months later, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI) as providing financial services to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics that allow this entity to develop Tehran’s alleged WMD programs. The Treasury Department also designated Banco Internacional de Desarollo, C.A., a financial institution in Venezuela, asserting it to be a business controlled by or acting on behalf of the EDBI. 48
Iran has reciprocated Venezuela’s economic support with various forms of military assistance. Most notably, Iran has provided Venezuela with six different models of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were allegedly shipped to the country in 70 mislabeled containers, each carrying 24,000 pounds of cargo from Iran. 49 Additionally, a former ballistic missile engineer from Iran’s Defense Industry Organization headed development of a domestic UAV production program in Venezuela. 50 With Iranian help, Venezuela claims to have produced three of its own UAVs, called the Arpia-001 (aka Harpy-001), which is a localized version of the Iranian Mohajer-2. 51 The state defense company claims the Arpia has a range of 100 km; however, since only still photos of the UAV have been released, these claims are unverifiable. 52 In announcing the program, former president Hugo Chávez maintained that the UAVs would only be used for defensive purposes. U.S. General Douglas Fraser has said the UAVs are likely intended for “internal defense.” 53
The United States is concerned that Venezuela is helping Iran circumvent UN and U.S. sanctions designed to prevent Iran and Syria from developing WMD and ballistic missile programs. In December 2008 media reports stated that an Iranian firm, Shahid Bagheri, under UN sanctions for furthering Iran’s ballistic missile program, had “used the Venezuelan airline Conviasa to ship computers and missile engines” to Syria in exchange for elite Iranian military forces providing law enforcement and intelligence training to Venezuelan troops. 54 Based on Venezuelan export statistics, the same airline was reportedly also used in 2010 to ship 4,556kg of explosives (worth $376,527) to Iran via the Caracas-Damascus-Tehran flight. 55 These incidents gained the attention of the U.S. State Department, which expressed concerns about Conviasa as a possible terrorism risk. 56
In September 2009, Chávez stated that Venezuela would use a $2.2 billion loan from Russia to buy Russian military technology, including a variety of air defense systems. The multi-layered air defense system could “include short-range S-125 Neva/Pechora (NATO: SA-3 Goa), medium-range Buk-M2, and possibly the long-range S-300 (NATO: SA-10 Grumble) surface-to-air missile system.” 57 Chávez claimed that defenses were necessary because of an increased U.S. presence in neighboring Columbia. Components for the S-300VM (Antey 2500) system arrived in Venezuela in April 2013, in spite of initial Russian fears that Chávez’s death the previous month might jeopardize arms deals between the two countries. 58