Caracas: Russia has agreed to help Venezuela draw up plans for a nuclear power plant, President Hugo Chavez said on Friday.
Atomic energy was one of many areas of cooperation discussed as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made his first visit to the South American country.
"We're ready to start drawing up the first plan of a nuclear power plant, obviously with peaceful aims," Chavez said.
Chavez had announced plans to turn to Russia for nuclear help in the past. He did not give details on how much Venezuela is prepared to invest, or how long it might take.
Russia and Venezuela also launched a joint business to tap vast oil deposits in eastern Venezuela, and Chavez said Moscow has offered to help Venezuela set up its own space industry including a satellite launch site.
Putin also pledged to keep selling arms to Venezuela. Chavez's government has already bought more than USD 4 billion in Russian weapons since 2005, including helicopters, fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.
"We will continue supporting and developing Venezuela's defence capabilities," said Putin, who headed back to Moscow after the one-day visit.
He noted Russia has agreed to lend Venezuela up to USD 2.2 billion for additional arms deals and said Venezuela has yet to use any of those funds. Chavez said the two governments were discussing new arms deals but did not give details.
Officials signed 31 agreements during Putin's visit to deepen cooperation in areas from air transport to agriculture. Russia is sending more than 2,000 Lada cars to Venezuela, Chavez said. Putin said there are plans to eventually assemble the cars in Venezuela.
Chavez has grown increasingly close to Russia, Iran and China while fiercely criticising US policies, and his calls for countering US influence to create a "multi-polar world" have found resonance in Moscow.
"Our objective is to make the world more democratic, make it balanced and multi-polar," Putin said. "The cooperation between Russia and Venezuela in this context has special importance."
When asked by a reporter how the US might view Venezuela's growing defence spending, Chavez noted Washington has barred arms sales to his government.
"The Yankee empire doesn't want us to have one single little plane," he said, adding: "We don't really care what Washington thinks. We aren't making alliances here against Washington."
Putin said if the United States doesn't want to sell arms to Venezuela, "well, for us that's good”.
Chavez said on Thursday that Russia has offered to help Venezuela set up a "satellite launcher and a factory" to help Venezuela establish its own space industry. He didn't give details or say how much that might cost.
Venezuela launched its first communications satellite from China in 2008.
The US State Department poked fun at Chavez's suggestion that Venezuela may set up a space industry with Russian help.
"We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages," spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters. "To the extent that Venezuela is going to expend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."
Worsening electricity shortages prompted Chavez's government to decree public holidays throughout this week to save energy. A severe drought has pushed water levels to precarious lows at the dam that supplies most of Venezuela's electricity.
Putin said Russia's government sees Venezuela as something of a bridge for deepening ties with Latin America, and noted that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to visit Brazil soon.
Bolivian President Evo Morales met in private with Putin at Chavez's presidential palace Friday night. Bolivia is requesting a loan from Russia to buy helicopters to help combat drug trafficking, Morales said.
Venezuela's state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA has formed a joint venture with a consortium of five Russian oil companies to drill for and process heavy crude in the Orinoco River basin in eastern Venezuela.
The five companies — Rosneft, Lukoil, TNK-BP, Gazprom and Surgutneftegas — have agreed to pay the Venezuelan government USD 1 billion for the right to help develop an area known as Junin 6, and Putin handed Chavez a folder containing what he said was a USD 600 million down payment.
Venezuela also agreed to allow the companies to be involved in three other areas in the crude-rich Orinoco region.
Political analysts in Moscow say Russia is drawn to Venezuela because of the its anti-US rhetoric, though business deals have helped cement the growing relationship.
"The only thing that really unites Russia and Venezuela is that they don't want to see a unipolar world," dominated by the US, said Sergei Mikheyev, an analyst at the Centre for Political Technologies, adding that President Barack Obama's administration hasn't done enough to lure Moscow away from Caracas.
But, he said, "Without the business involved, the anti-American rhetoric wouldn't be enough to unite Russia and Venezuela."
Chavez presented Putin with the Order of the Liberator — Venezuela's highest honour — and gave him a replica of a sword used by South American independence hero Simon Bolivar — the namesake of Chavez's socialist-inspired "Bolivarian Revolution”.
Putin kissed the replica sword and said: "Russia from the start has supported Latin America's struggle for independence."
First Published: Saturday, April 03, 2010, 10:19