By Peter Spinella and Juan Garff (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Russian military officials have arrived in Venezuela for talks on defense industry cooperation, Russian state media reported on Monday.
The government of Vladimir Putin is one of the crisis-hit Venezuelan government’s strongest backers, having provided billions of dollars in credit to the South American country in recent years.
Amid food and medicine shortages, Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy has teetered on the verge of collapse, inciting mass protests. While helping keep the government of Nicolas Maduro afloat, the billions have not been able to reverse the trend of falling oil production and massive emigration.
There is “nothing mysterious” about the Russian visit, an undisclosed diplomatic source said in comments carried by state news outlet RIA Novosti.
Russia and Venezuela “have a number of contracts being implemented, including contracts on military and technical cooperation,” the source was quoted as saying.
Russian weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov previously announced plans to begin assembling AK-103 assault rifles at a factory in Venezuela by the end of this year, with an annual capacity of 25,000.
Recent media reports said that two Russian military planes – an An-124 cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger jet – had landed in Venezuela carrying about 100 personnel.
The Russian delegation was led by the country’s head of organizing the mobilization of military forces, Vasily Tonkoshkurov, South American broadcaster NTN24 reported.
In a show of solidarity in December, Russian and Venezuelan forces conducted a joint military exercise in the South American country.
The exercise involved two nuclear-capable Russian Tu-160 bombers. It evoked condemnation from the Organization of American States, which comprises 35 countries in North and South America.
Ties between Russia and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appear to have strengthened this year as a US-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president in January, seeks regime change.
In calling for fresh elections, Guaido has also received backing from numerous European and Latin American states. Russia and China are Maduro’s strongest backers.