By the Blouin News Politics staff

Awkward: U.S. is middleman in Venezuela helicopter sale

by in Americas.

Troops in Caracas on March 5. John Moore/Getty Images

Troops in Caracas on March 5. John Moore/Getty Images

As protests and tensions in Venezuela continue while Washington criticizes Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the situation, an unusual development has occurred in the area of military sales: A U.S.-based company has sold helicopters to the Venezuelan government.

On March 3, the Enstrom Helicopter Corporation announced it had received a signed contract from the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense for 16 training helicopters. The company, based in Menominee, Michigan, explains that 16 standard model 480B helicopters will be delivered over the next 18 months to the South American nation. In addition, the contract also includes, “spare parts and tools, pilot and mechanic training, and in-country technical assistance during the life of the contract.” It is expected that the new Venezuelan trainers will be built in Enstrom’s factory at Menominee-Marinette Twin County Airport.

No reports have been made available regarding the price tag of this contract.

Enstrom has had a busy couple of years. Apart from signing high-profile contracts with various governments, in late 2012 the company was bought by the Chinese company Chongqing Helicopter Investment Co., Ltd. (CQHIC). As for the Enstrom-Caracas deal, it is logical that the Venezuelan government chose these helicopters, as Venezuelan security forces already operate them, providing pilots and technicians with a working familiarity of the aircraft. Venezuela’s National Guard first purchased Enstrom helicopters in 1970 and expanded their fleet in 2001. A report by the security news agency Infodefensa.com explains that the new fleet of Enstrom helicopters will be the cornerstone for a future Venezuelan military academy that will train helicopter pilots.

Despite the U.S involvement in this deal — which makes for very bad optics for the Obama administration — it should not come as a shock that a Chinese-owned firm would sell materiel to Venezuela. During his lengthy presidency, Hugo Chavez established close relations with Beijing; Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt oil fields. More crucially, military relations between the two countries are strong, including on arms sales. This is exemplified by Venezuela’s purchase of 111 armored personnel carriers that Caracas bought from China North Industries Corp (Norinco).

We see here the power of globalized trade: the U.S. Is, essentially, acting as an intermediary between Beijing and Caracas. Whether the Obama administration regards this deal as worth a public display of attention remains to be seen. A good precedent to look to might be found in late 2006, when Washington managed to put the kibosh on a planned sale of 12 military aircraft from Spain to Venezuela — the justification being that the planes in question contained U.S. military technology and could not be transferred to another country without Washington’s approval. At the time, Eduardo Aguirre, the U.S. ambassador to Spain, said the sale could be a “destabilizing factor.”

The recent deal between Enstrom and Caracas becomes all the more salient considering the broken state of U.S.-Venezuela relations. In late February Caracas expelled three diplomats from the consular services at the U.S. embassy in Venezuela; Washington retaliated by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats from Caracas’ embassy in the U.S.

The Enstrom deal — along with the fact that, for over a decade and despite strained-to-nonexistent ties, Caracas has continued to sell oil to the U.S. — is yet more evidence that in today’s globalized world, the hard facts of economic reality exist in tension with stated policies — and sometimes even supersedes them.