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Opinion and Analysis: International | Military

Venezuela’s Armed Forces Under Fire by Washington

During an event that included the transfer of mandate of several members of the high military command on Tuesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said changes to the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) are important for strengthening democracy.

Chavez was referring specifically to General Henry Rangel Silva, who was sworn in this week as the new Minister of Defense. “May the decent and patriotic officials of our Bolivarian Armed Forces give their full support to our new Minister. Changes in the National Bolivarian Armed Forces are important for our democratic homeland”, declared the President.

Rangel Silva’s designation as the South American nation’s new Minister of Defense has been hyped up and distorted in media outlets throughout Venezuela, Colombia and the United States. In 2008, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the Treasury Department, included Rangel Silva on its list of foreigners allegedly involved in drug trafficking and/or terrorism under the “Kingpin Act”. However, no evidence was presented to support this serious claim.

OFAC also included the head of Venezuela’s military intelligence, General Hugo Carvajal, and then Minister of Interior and Justice, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, on the same list with Rangel Silva, who at the time oversaw Venezuela’s civilian intelligence agency, SEBIN. The inclusion of the three heads of Venezuelan intelligence was largely viewed as an attack against the oil nation’s security apparatus, at a time when the US government was considering placing Venezuela on its list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.

The allegations against Rangel Silva, Carvajal and Rodriguez Chacin, were based on unsubstantiated data from laptop computers acquired by the Colombian government during the March 2008 attack on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp. Using the laptop content, Washington claimed the three Venezuelan officials had “materially assisted the narcotics trafficking activities of the FARC, a narcoterrorist organization”.

INTERPOL later determined the information on the computers could not be authenticated nor could the original source of the data be verified. Colombia’s highest court also ruled that the laptop data could not be used as legal evidence against anyone. Nonetheless, the famous FARC laptops have been used by both the conservative Colombian government, Washington and some media to tarnish Venezuela’s image and accuse it of compliance with drug trafficking and terrorism. The FARC is considered a terrorist group only by Colombia and the United States.

No corroborating evidence has ever been presented to demonstrate Rangel Silva’s or other members of the Venezuelan government’s involvement with the FARC or any illicit activities. President Chavez did hold negotiations with the FARC on several occasions under the direct authorization of the Colombian government. His involvement secured the release of several hostages the FARC had held for years, including Ingrid Betancourt and three US military officers.

On Wednesday, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned “our concerns about Rangel Silva are well known and of long standing”. But those “concerns” have yet to be substantiated by any legally credible evidence. Rangel Silva has adamantly denied the charges against him. No formal complaints have been brought against him within Venezuela or by Colombia, nor has any other independent evidence been presented to link him to any illegal activities.

Rangel Silva has been a close ally and collaborator of President Chavez for over 20 years. He trained with him as a younger soldier and participated in the Chavez-led military rebellion against the murderous and corrupt government of Carlos Andres Perez on February 4, 1992.

The new Minister of Defense has held high-level positions during the Chavez administration, including head of the intelligence agency SEBIN and Commander of the Strategic Operational Command, which oversees all of Venezuela’s Armed Forces operational activities. At the time of his designation as Minister of Defense, he was the highest ranking officer in the country.