Confronting Venezuela

The stark reality is that, despite its vaunted “superpower” status, the US really doesn’t have much leverage with Venezuela. It appears that Venezuela is the true “superpower” in this situation. With oil markets tight, the US economy slowing, and the Chinese market waiting in the wings, this is hardly the time to mess with a major oil supplier.

By Jeremy Bigwood and James S. Henry - Submerging Markets
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In recent months there have been mounting tensions between the Bush Administration and Venezuela’s popularly-elected, if left-leaning, President, Hugo Chavez -- culminating in a series of heated confrontations over the past two weeks, and Condi Rice’s interventionist rhetoric at the OAS summit in Miami this last weekend.

If this were the mid-20th century, Latin America watchers might fear that they were witnessing the early stages of yet another US-backed coup, like those that ousted other popularly-elected, if left-leaning, governments in Guatemala (1954, 1963), Argentina (1962, 1976), Brazil (1964), the Dominican Republic (1965), Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), and indeed Venezuela itself (1948).

Today, 15 years into the “post-dictatorship” era, Latin America is still struggling to recover from the disastrous long-term effects of these US-backed regime changes.

These efforts may or may not have warded off socialist revolutions, but they undoubtedly produced a hit parade of corrupt, repressive dictatorships. They also persuaded a whole generation of progressive young Latin Americans that the only route to social justice was by way of violent revolution, and contributed mightily to the entire region’s excessive debts and economic regression—and a surfeit of hostility toward the US.

Fortunately, those Cold War days are long gone - or are they?

The latest developments in the Bush-Chavez joropo came this week, with the release of a strongly-worded protest letter from PROVEA, an otherwise highly-regarded Venezuelan human rights organization that has often criticized President Hugo Chavez.

Addressed to US Ambassador William Brownfield in Caracas, PROVEA’s letter expresses grave concern about a steady stream of increasingly menacing statements that have been emanating from senior members of the Bush Administration. PROVEA believes that, taken together, these statements are creating a climate of fear, and threatening Venezuela’s sovereignty and self-determination:

“We wish to express to you and your government our concern about the tone, the frequency and the possible implications of the declarations of high-level officials of the present U.S. administration regarding Venezuela.”

PROVEA’s letter singles out recent statements by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Roger Noriega, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and several right-wing members of Congress. It also takes note of a fiction-filled white paper on Venezuela by the Center for Security Policy, an obscure right-wing think tank that apparently just cannot get its fill of aggressive US foreign policy.

According to PROVEA, these aggressive statements have grossly misrepresented Venezuela’s situation by using terms like “dictatorship“ to describe the Chavez government, and by implying that he is on the verge of establishing some kind of  refuge for FARC rebels and al-Qaeda terrorists just across the Caribbean from us -- worst of all, paid for by our own oil purchases.

PROVEA has also reminded US Ambassador Brownfield that, for what it is worth, the US and Venezuela have both signed the Articles of the Organization of American States (OAS) Charter, which is supposed to its member countries’ rights of self-determination. Of course in this Boltonian Era, with an international treaty and a few bolivars you can buy a café Negro.

The comments by PROVEA (the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights) are interesting because this organization is no mere Chavez mouthpiece. It is a 17-year old NGO funded mainly by Protestant and Catholic churches, whose work has often been cited by international human rights monitoring organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Indeed, the US State Department has often relied on PROVEA’s assessments in its annual “Country Reports of Human Rights Practices,” and has described the organization as “a highly respected human rights NGO.”

PROVEA’s comments also reflect a growing concern among independent observers that Washington and Caracas may be on the road to an even sharper confrontation. Several other recent events have also contributed to this perception.

Will the real terrorist haven please stand up?

To begin with, there is the recent dispute over the fate of the 77-year old Cuban-Venezuelan terror suspect Luis Posada Carriles. In late May, he was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security in Miami. He’d sought refuge there after winning an early release from a Panamanian prison, where he had served 3 years for allegedly plotting to kill Cuba’s President Fidel Castro.

At first the Bush administration claimed that it couldn’t find Posada Carriles, but after he turned up on a Miami TV station, a former FBI agent tracked him down and elided that excuse. Needless to say, the fact that a notorious, convicted international terrorist was able to enter the US at will and then disappear into hiding hasn’t done much for Homeland Security’s image. The fact that he also apparently still had a US passport in his own name was also something of a puzzle.

As international terrorists go, Sr. Posada Carriles certainly is a poster boy. Venezuela has requested his extradition to try him again for his alleged role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 people, including several Venezuelan citizens. The Bush administration is jumping through hoops trying to dodge this request, which appears to be perfectly normal under international law -- it is, in fact, a right that the US itself exercises frequently. At last glance, an El Salvador judge had suddenly expressed interest in extraditing Posada Carriles for unspecified charges in that country, where he reportedly worked with the CIA during the contra wars and hid out in the 1990s.

Separately, Castro would also like to try Posada Carriles for his alleged role in a Havana bombing that killed an Italian tourist, plus several others assination attempts. Sr. Posada Carriles, who has a long history of involvement with both the CIA and anti-Castro Miami exiles, claims that he is innocent. So far the US government has refused to hand him over, asserting that the Venezuelan extradition request is not detailed enough. Both the Castro and Chavez governments have organized massive street protests over this episode, and Venezuela has threatened to sever diplomatic ties.

President Bush has resisted the temptation to invite Posada Carriles to the White House and award him the Medal of Freedom. But just last week, Bush did meet another indicted Venezuelan for 15 minutes in the White House -- Maria Corina Machado, an elitista opposition leader who is facing charges of “conspiracy“ to overthrow Chavez. Her organization, Sumate, has received grants from the US government  to help organize the 2004 anti-Chavez recall referendum -- which he won handily anyway.

Sumate has also received donations from wealthy Venezuelans and Cuban-Americans who are opposed to Chavez. Ms. Corina Machado’s head must be spinning with all the attention suddenly lavished upon her.

Since the Chavez government has often been accused -- to date, at least, without proof -- of harboring international terrorists from groups like Spain’s ETA, Colombia’s FARC, and even some leading members of al-Qaeda, this is an especially interesting development. Interestingly, Spain, which also has a huge stake in fighting these groups, maintains warm relations with Hugo.

From Chavez’ standpoint, if there are any terrorists who just happen to have been hiding out in Venezuela’s vast reaches, this would be a perfect time to do the right thing and make the trade—by turning them over to the International Criminal Court, for example.

Colombia/Peru Tensions

As the guerilla war in neighboring Colombia has escalated, with US military aid to the Colombian government approaching $3 billion, there have also been several incidents that have convinced the US, at least, that Chavez is aiding Colombia’s left-wing guerillas. This issue was highlighted in December 2004, when Rodrigo Granda, a senior spokesman for the FARC, was seized while attending a conference in Caracas.

Two years earlier, Caracas had also played host to former Peruvian spymaster and arms dealer Vladimiro Montesinos -- though it is still not clear precisely who was protecting him there.

Free Trade Zone

With left-leaning, democratically-elected governments now in place all over Latin America, and Hugo’s position at home more secure than ever, he has seized the opportunity to barnstorm across the continent to support increased Latin American integration, and - to Washington’s immense displeasure - to oppose one of the Bush Administration favorite neoliberal proposals, the “Free Trade Zone of the Americas.” Chavez alone is not responsible for stalling the treaty -- Brazil’s Lula has also said that it is off the agenda for now. But Hugo’s vocal opposition has not earned him any reward miles in Washington.

Oil Squeeze

With oil prices at record levels, and the US relying on Venezuela for supplying more than 1.2 million barrels per day of oil, up to 15% of all US oil imports, Venezuela has been feeling its oats. The surge in oil revenues has permitted Chavez to increase domestic spending, shore up his political base, and “strut his stuff” all over the continent. The US still accounts for more than 60% of Venezuela’s oil exports. To reduce this dependency, Chavez has started to negotiate new long-term contracts with other hungry markets, especially China. This has also not been popular with the Bush Administration, whose own popularity has been hurt at least as much as Hugo’s has been helped by soaring energy prices.

Other Irritants

Chavez’s close relationship with Cuba in general and Fidel in particular is another thumb-in-the-eye for US policymakers. Chavez has agreed to provide the island with oil at subsidized prices -- partly in exchange for several thousand Cuban doctors. Meanwhile, he is also upgrading Venezuela’s ill-equipped military, ordering 100,000 AK-103s and 10 helicopters from Russia to replace his army’s 50-year old FAL rifles. Meanwhile, Colombia, one of the few remaining US allies in the region, makes all the Galils that it wants under license from Israel, without any protests from Washington.

It is not as if Chavez has only been dealing with Russia and Cuba. Spain is also selling him fast boats for drug control, and Brazil is selling him Super Tucano airplanes for border patrol. The US DEA is privately delighted with these acquisitions, and with Hugo’s cooperation on the anti-drug front in general, but it is unlikely to come to his defense in public.

At a news conference in Brazil last March, Donald Rumsfeld, the peripatetic US Secretary of Defense, commented that “I can’t imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s." Perhaps Rumsfeld should get a briefing on the difference between AK-103s and AK-47s. He should also read the PROVEA letter.

Summary

The stark reality is that, despite its vaunted “superpower” status, the US really doesn’t have much leverage with Venezuela—unless Chavez does something incredibly stupid, a possibility that we cannot entirely rule out if tensions continue to escalate.

Apart from that possibility, it appears that Venezuela is the true “superpower” in this situation. With oil markets tight, the US economy slowing, and the Chinese market waiting in the wings, this is hardly the time to mess with a major oil supplier.

Chavez’ popularity has also increased sharply since last year’s referendum, and this is not just because of the surge in petrodollars. After fumbling the April 2002 coup and punting last year’s referendum, the hapless Venezuelan opposition has demonstrated conclusively that it is far better at schmoozing in Miami, Houston, and Washington than at organizing an effective grassroots political movement. It should return home, end its financial ties to gringos and right-wing Cuban exiles, and work harder. As for US military options, so long as Chavez keeps his own Army happy, observes international law, and also maintains popular support, there aren’t any. Cold War triumphalists and national security experts who think otherwise are advised to take a crash course in Caribbean tanker routes, US refinery economics, and the capabilities of the latest generation of Russian anti-ship missiles.

More fundamentally, the real reason that a self-educated populist blowhard like Chavez has managed to win at least four nationwide electoral contests since 1998 is neither because he is a ruthless thug or a brilliant demagogue.

Rather, it is because the avaricious, short-sighted Venezuelan elite that dominated the country’s economy, executive branch, legislature, judiciary, military, press, and church for four decades, with close support from the USG and Wall Street, left the country a debt-laden, corruption-ridden mess. (See The Blood Bankers for all the gory details.)

Every time the US government lectures Hugo, muscles him, or tries to artificially inseminate its friends and hirelings in the “Venezuelan opposition” into Venezuelan history, it merely reminds people of this unfortunate fact.

Jeremy Bigwood

James S. Henry
[email protected]

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