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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

Spain's defense chief calls Chávez "a great friend"

Minister Morenés justifies sale of arms to Venezuela, even though country “is no friend of the United States”

Defense Minister Pedro Morenés said Wednesday that Spanish companies, such as state-owned shipbuilder Navantia, should be able to sell arms and other military equipment to Venezuela despite Washington's concerns over any such deals. Speaking before Congress in Madrid, Morenés called Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez "a great friend" of Spain.

Officials from Navantia, a national leader in the design and construction of hi-tech military and civilian vessels, traveled to Caracas in search of new business, the defense chief said.

Morenés appeared before Congress at the request of the United Left (IU) coalition's petition to discuss defense issues and the status of Spain's current military missions abroad.

Billion-euro deal

In 2005, Navantia sold the Chávez government seven patrol vessels that were built in Cádiz at a cost of 1.2 billion euros. The last of these vessels was delivered on April 23 during a ceremony in Venezuela that was attended by the Spanish ambassador to Caracas, Bernardo Álvarez, and the chairman of the state industrial holding company SEPI, which controls Navantia.

Diplomatic cables released in 2010 by the WikiLeaks whistleblower site described tensions five years earlier between Washington and the then-Zapatero government over the sale of the patrol boats to Venezuela. The sale also caused rifts inside the Socialist government between then-Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and the defense chief of the time, José Bono. In 2005, Washington blocked the sale to Venezuela of Spanish-manufactured military planes by denying the technology transfer of US licenses of certain aircraft components.

Morenés explained that Spain is "a sovereign nation" when it comes to selling military equipment, but acknowledged that it cannot sell any equipment covered by US patents without Washington's prior approval.

"Venezuela isn't precisely a very good friend of the United States, and has a president, who by the way, insults from one day to the next the president of the United States, who happens to be our friend just as the president of Venezuela also is our great friend," the defense chief said.

Although Navantia has not made any public comments about the proposed sale, company sources told Efe that they hope to secure a contract similar to the one in 2005.