Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, sought to strengthen Moscow’s defence and energy ties with Venezuela yesterday when he paid an official visit to Caracas.

Mr Putin’s arrival will provide a welcome boost to Hugo Chávez, the embattled socialist president of Venezuela, who has recently encountered heavy criticism from the international community and domestic opponents.

Mr Chávez hailed the Russian leader’s first visit to Venezuela as “a truly important day for the country and for Latin America”.

Mr Chávez, who cherishes his self-image as the leading opponent of US power in the Americas, added: “We are forging, like steel, a new, multi-polar world.” The president presented Mr Putin with a replica of the sword of Simon Bolivar, South America’s 19th century independence hero after whom Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” is named.

The closer relationship between the countries – which has seen Mr Chávez travel to Moscow eight times since 2001 – has unsettled the US, not least because Mr Putin has offered to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy.

“We are not going to build the atomic bomb, but we will develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. We have to prepare for the post-petroleum era,” said Mr Chávez. Venezuela has also signed agreements to buy more than $4bn worth of Russian weapons since 2005 – including Sukhoi jet fighters, helicopters and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Last year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, gave warning that these military deals could trigger a regional arms race.

Venezuela’s purchase of Russian military hardware has caused concern in neighbouring Colombia.

Mr Putin’s visit will also deepen Moscow’s energy co-operation with Venezuela after a consortium of Russian oil companies, including Rosneft, Lukoil, TNK-BP, Gazprom and
Surgutneftegas, agreed to invest $18bn (€13.5bn, £12bn) in developing the Orinoco strip.

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