CARACAS — In barely two years, Venezuela has spent the impressive sum of $4.3 billion in armaments. That figure is higher than the amount countries like Pakistan or Iran (whose environments are a lot more in conflict than is Venezuela’s) have devoted to battle gear. Among the recent purchases are 24 aircraft (for combat and training), 50 helicopters, and no fewer than 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, approximately one for each member of the Venezuelan armed forces. But the escalation in arms conducted by that oil-producing nation on the Caribbean does not stop there. President Chávez has traveled to Russia, his principal supplier of war materiel, to negotiate the purchase of nine submarines, four of them Amur-class Project-677, and five Project-636 attack subs. The likely purchase, about to take place, will have a price tag of almost $2 billion, to which should be added the possible acquisition of aircraft-defense batteries and a large amount of light weaponry.

Chávez has approached the old superpower with his pockets full of the oil money he received through state-owned PDVSA (owner of CITGO), as if he had more than enough resources and didn’t know what to do with them. Many Venezuelans ask themselves, however, Why spend so much on armaments and aid to kindred governments on this continent, while Venezuelan hospitals are in a dilapidated condition, the highway system deteriorates at a dizzying speed, and shoppers in Caracas cannot find the meat, sugar, or grains that are part of their basic diet? Why does a country that is threatened by no one spend such huge sums on weapons it does not need, instead of devoting those resources to improving the lives of its people?

To understand this policy—which at first glance is absurd—it is necessary to look into the thought process and attitudes of Venezuela’s current ruler, a military man with untempered delusions of grandeur, who is not only a populist demagogue but also a man with dangerous ideas that are capable of generating serious conflicts.

Chávez sees himself as the leader of a “Bolivarian Revolution” whose goal it is to spread throughout the world what he calls “twenty-first-century socialism,” a socialism that—despite its name—is much too similar to the totalitarian model that was the paradigm of twentieth-century communists. Of course, the president of Venezuela wishes to enjoy popular support and bask in the crowds’ warm encouragement. But more than popularity, more than accomplishing tasks, what Chávez really wants is to become a world leader comparable to Lenin or Mao, the visible spearhead of a campaign that confronts Americans in all parts of the world. To that end lie his visible alliance with Iran, a country that is about to possess nuclear weapons, the enormous expenditures he makes to buy allegiances both inside and outside his country, and his unconcealed and provocative procurement of arms, unusual in a region where in fact there are no real territorial, ethnic, or religious conflicts.

Chávez hopes that eventually the United States will fall for his game of provocation and launch an attack on him. He is preparing for what he calls an “asymmetrical war,” a confrontation similar to the one that unfolded in Iraq four years ago and which he hopes to win, one way or another. Apparently, he doesn’t care how much blood may flow or how much destruction may be wreaked; he wants only to defy the “empire” and survive, somehow emulating what Fidel Castro, his archetype of a revolutionary, did by other means. Since he has no idea how to manage the economy of a country, and trusts that crude oil will always provide the resources he needs for his plans, he spends money by the fistful without looking ahead to the future, without heeding the danger signs issuing from an economy that is evermore controlled and evermore inefficient.

It is not possible to foretell, not even approximately, how this strange warmongering adventure will end. Perhaps the government, besieged by the growing discontent of a population that wants no dictatorships, will have to give in and follow a less bellicose course. Perhaps an impending economic crisis will prevent it from continuing on the path it has taken, or, on the contrary, will lead it to impose more open forms of totalitarianism. The only sure thing is that the Venezuelan people, whose lives worsen every day, will continue to bear the weight of the president’s economic, political, and military follies, wondering how much progress could have been achieved if the oil riches had been spent more judiciously.