Page last updated at 17:16 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Venezuela joins space club nations

By Alfonso Daniels
El Sombrero, Venezuela

Venezuela's satellite control centre at El Sombrero
Venezuela is looking to the skies with help from China

After a five-hour bus ride south of Caracas - interrupted by a rock smashing through the windscreen as a gang unsuccessfully tried to ambush the vehicle and rob us - we arrived at the Venezuelan equivalent of Nasa's Houston space control centre.

This is where Venezuela's first communications satellite, which was launched from China on Wednesday, is being monitored.

The centre is in a flashy new building surrounded by huge satellite dishes, at the heart of an air force base in El Sombrero, surrounded by an endless expanse of farmland.

The satellite ...will be purely for social uses and will be open to other Latin American countries
Luis Holder
Programme Director

Above the entrance is a massive sign reading "Patria, Socialismo o Muerte" - Fatherland, Socialism or Death.

Russian Sukhoi fighters were taking off constantly from a nearby landing strip, a vivid reminder of Venezuela's rearmament drive and close ties to those not allied with the US.

Inside, dozens of Venezuelan and Chinese technicians had been working busily ahead of the satellite launch, the result of a $406m (252m) agreement signed four years ago after the Chinese agreed to provide Venezuela with training and technological know-how.

Space politics

The Venesat-1 telecom satellite is called "Simon Bolivar" after Latin America's 19th Century independence hero.

The government says the satellite, which alone cost $250m, will provide thousands of people in remote areas with TV, radio and internet access. Its coverage will go from southern Mexico down to central Chile and Argentina.

Officials say it will be made available to other Latin American countries to enhance regional integration and also for social programmes such as tele-education and tele-medicine.


Inside Venezuela's Mission Control

"Venezuela covers almost one million square kilometres and we have people living in very remote areas, many of them indigenous people, who have had very little opportunity to be looked after by the Venezuelan state in terms of health and education," said deputy science and technology planning minister, Luis Marcano Gonzalez.

With the successful launch, Venezuela joins Latin America's exclusive space club that includes Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

It is also be a propaganda coup for President Hugo Chavez. Opinion polls suggest that his United Socialist Party may lose key states in the crucial 23 November municipal and state elections.

After losing last December's referendum that would have expanded presidential powers, another embarrassing result could put his whole 21st Century Socialist Revolution in doubt.

Programme director Luis Holder, showing off the mission control room where groups of Chinese technicians were working on computers ahead of Wednesday's launch, stressed that the satellite would have no military purposes.

"It will be purely for social uses and will be open to other Latin American countries," he said.

Mr Holder said that a second reconnaissance satellite, expected to be launched in 2013, would also be for civilian use only.

21st Century socialism

However, Daniel Varnagy, a telecommunications expert from Simon Bolivar University, believes the satellite could serve both military and civilian purposes.

"Chavez is trying to protect his political project and his own person. He believes he's being pursued and spied on by other countries," said Mr Varnagy.

He says the new satellite, coming after the nationalisation of Venezuela's telecommunications sector, will give the government the possibility of interfering with communications.

Chinese space technicians
China has been helping the Venezuelan space programme

"There's no question: all this is part of an ideological race to try to expand 21st Century Socialism to the whole of South America," he said.

The government has also been criticised for focusing on expensive projects while ignoring more pressing needs such as fighting rampant crime, repairing the country's crumbling roads and tackling inflation.

The authorities are also under pressure to prevent major electricity black-outs, the latest one taking place only a few days ago which officials said they believed to be the work of saboteurs.

Despite the money spent on the satellite project, Mr Marcano Gonzalez believes the investment is justified, and he cites the example of India.

"Thirty years ago India began its space programme when the country had high levels of poverty. Space technology has allowed the nation to maintain social and cultural cohesion to emerge from under-development.

"Today it is a big power with a voice among nations."

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