This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
While much of what is written about the strength of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s military is true, its capabilities should not be exaggerated. One illustrative example is the Bolivarian navy of Venezuela (Armada Bolivariana de Venezuela), which operates a particularly old fleet of ships and submarines.
During the lengthy presidency of the late Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), the Venezuelan government spent billions of dollars to acquire state-of-the–art military equipment, particularly from the Russian Federation, to strengthen the Venezuelan armed forces and protect the country from aggression it believed might come from either the United States or Colombia. The Venezuelan army, air force, national guard and paramilitary units received copious amounts of new equipment, such as the S-300 surface-to-missile system, Mil helicopters, Sukhoi Su-30 warplanes and small weapons, but the navy did not.
The Armada has two subs, the Type 209/1300 Sabalo (S-31) and Caribe (S-32), both manufactured in the 1970s. Caribe has been in a dry dock for over a decade undergoing repairs; meanwhile Sabalo’s Twitter account posted photos of the sub on dry land on 3 January 2019 stating that the platform was undergoing maintenance. Since then, there have been no reports or photos, that show Sabalo back in water. In other words, for all intents and purposes, Venezuela has no submarine fleet, a critical component of maritime deterrence and strategic operations. During the Chavez-era there were reports that Caracas was looking to buy Russian Kilo-class submarines, this, however, did not occur.
As for surface vessels, the tip of the spear are Mariscal Sucre-class frigates, manufactured in Italy in the 1980s, and the British-made Constitucion and Federacion-class patrol boats, manufactured in the 1970s. The rest of the fleet is composed of a variety of transport vessels, logistics ships and auxiliary craft. In the past decade, the navy acquired the Guaiqueri-class offshore patrol vessels, manufactured in Spain; and Los Frailes-class transport vessels, manufactured by the Dutch shipyard Damen. The latter are based on Damen’s Stan Lander 5612 design.
The Venezuelan navy occasionally carries out live-fire exercises with them, which include launching Otomat missiles. One example is exercise Bolivarian Shield-Caribbean (Escudo Bolivariano Caribe 1), which took place on May 2020 at La Orchila Island in the Caribbean.
The bad news for the navy is that the country’s ongoing economic crisis means that Caracas does not have the financial resources to a carry out major repairs and upgrades to its ships or subs, let alone acquire new equipment. The international isolation and sanctions that the Maduro government has had to endure do not help the situation, as Caracas cannot send its ships to be repaired abroad.
Moreover, this international isolation means that the navy has few partners with which to train, as most Latin American and Caribbean governments do not recognize the Maduro regime. Venezuela’s only remaining allies in the Caribbean are Cuba and Nicaragua, two nations that themselves have small fleets and very limited naval capabilities. For example the Cuban navy’s heaviest warship is a trawler-turned-patrol boat (complete with a helo deck), the Rio Damuji (BP 391), and the shadowy, domestically-manufactured small submarine Dolphin.
Interestingly, in August 2019 Caracas and Moscow signed a ports agreement so that their respective navies can dock in the ports of the other country to refuel. This agreement is primarily aimed at helping Russian ships, which occasionally travel to the Western Hemisphere to visit Russia’s allies in the region. It is highly doubtful that Venezuelan ships, apart from the training vessel Simon Bolivar (BE-11) will travel outside Venezuelan territorial waters, let alone outside the hemisphere to Russian waters, anytime in the near future.
The precarious state of the fleet was laid bare in March 2020, when the patrol boat Naiguatá (GC-23) intercepted the cruise ship RCGS Resolute that was navigating either in international waters in the Caribbean or in Venezuelan waters, depending on conflicting accounts. After firing warning shots at Resolute to force it to alter its course, Naiguatá rammed the civilian ship. The problem with this tactic was that Resolute is an ice-class cruise liner with a reinforced hull that has previously operated in Antarctica. Thus, after ramming Resolute, Naiguatá sank.
The true state of the Venezuelan navy these days is at odds with the propaganda coming out of Caracas. President Nicolas Maduro and military commanders routinely highlight the readiness of the Venezuelan military, arguing how powerful it is, and how troops are prepared to defeat any invader. Moreover, government officials routinely make provocative and inflammatory comments, like the 2019 statement by a senior politician that Venezuela’s Pechora missiles were able to reach downtown Bogota, the Colombian capital – in reality, these missiles do not have the necessary range.
Similarly, while naval commanders and state-run social media accounts routinely praise the status of the fleet, the Naiguatá incident does not help the Venezuelan navy appear as a powerful force. Indeed, now not only does the navy have an aging fleet with a non-existent submarine force, but it has also lost one of its patrol boats.
Looking forward, it is likely tensions will continue between the Maduro administration and the Biden presidency in the United States as well as neighboring Colombia. Last year there were some provocative maneuvers carried out by US warships that angered Caracas: in 2020 the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Nitze (DDG 94) and USS Pinckney (DDG 91), on separate occasions, challenged Venezuela’s maritime claim in international waters during a successful freedom of navigation operation. “The illegitimate Maduro regime improperly claims excessive controls over those international waters, which extend three miles beyond the 12-mile territorial sea, a claim that is inconsistent with international law,” explained US Southern Command at the time. Hence, it is possible that a Venezuelan warship may attempt to shadow a US vessel carrying out another freedom of navigation operation at some point in the future as a way for the Armada to showcase its capabilities.
Similarly tensions between Venezuela and Guyana over a border dispute may provoke maritime incidents. Case in point, in January 12 Guyanese fishermen were arrested for fishing in Guyanese waters, which Venezuela claims as part of its territory. While the fishermen were ultimately released and the incident did not escalate, it is likely that there will be similar incidents in the future as a way for Caracas to show its military capabilities. However, close defence relations between Georgetown and Washington will likely serve as a dissuasive element to deter Caracas from acting more aggressively.
The Venezuelan navy would like to showcase itself to the rest of the Western Hemisphere, particularly Washington and Bogota, as a Kraken, a legendary sea monster. In reality, the Armada has very limited capabilities when it comes to power projection, as exemplified by its non-existent submarine fleet, the loss of Naiguatá, and voyages by US warships through waters claimed by Venezuela. Rather, the navy’s main tasks are to carry out internal security operations in Venezuela’s exclusive economic zone and harass the militarily weak Guyana. While the Armada Bolivariana does have some powerful weapons, such as the Otomat missiles, and several functioning warships, the fleet is no Caribbean Kraken.