February 21, 2010:
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's mismanagement of the economy, and resulting inflation and unemployment has created a growing opposition. Chavez has come up with an idea that will make the most of the growing economic decline. Because many government employees are now working shorter hours, because of electricity shortages, the government is encouraging these workers to use some of their additional free time, to join the workers militia. This is a pro-government (well, pro-Chavez) organization that relies on volunteers, and is armed with Russian weapons bought by the government. The militia already has 150,000 members, and the government wants more. There are currently 2.3 million government employees in Venezuela, and most of those hired since Chavez took power were selected in part for their loyalty to Chavez. The number of government employees (now 20 percent of the work force) has gone up 70 percent since Chavez took over. The Venezuelan military has 130,000 personnel, but Chavez is mostly concerned with the growing number of civilians who oppose his rule. Thus volunteers for the militia are not accepted until their loyalty to Chavez is assured. Not everyone qualifies.
Chavez also has his own source of weapons for his militia. Two years ago, Venezuela obtained a license to produce Russian AK-103 assault rifles. Manufacturing began last year. Four years ago, Venezuela bought 100,000 of these assault rifles, the most recent model of the original AK-47.
Russia hasn't manufactured the AK-47 (or its upgraded version, the AKM), for many years. Instead, Russia now makes the AK-74, a weapon similar to the American M-16 (firing a slightly smaller 5.45mm bullet), and the AK-101 (which fires the U.S. 5.56mm round) and the AK-103 (which fires the same 7.62mm bullet of the old AK-47). The AK-103 is essentially a very up-to-date design of the old AK-47. Normally, the AK-103 sells for about $800 each (including cleaning supplies, magazines, spare parts and the like.) But many of the AK-103 sold to Venezuela from Russia are being billed at $1200 each, the additional $400 going into the pockets of Venezuelan politicians who got behind the weapons purchase and distribution (to friends of the current Venezuelan government) of the weapons. New weapons, old traditions. Venezuela could have bought newly manufactured (but not by Russia) AK-47s for $400. But this purchase was not so much about weapons, as it was about politics. And that's why there so much more opposition to Chavez.