Time for a New Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela: When Apologies are Not Enough

Calling for terrorist homicide against a democratically elected president is not merely "inappropriate" -- it is illegal, unethical, and it must be investigated for potential violations of federal and international law.

On Monday, August 22nd, right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson called for the assassination of democratically-elected President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Robertson (a candidate for the GOP´s Presidential nomination in 1992) and the millions of supporters of his television show, The 700 Club, are a key constituency of the Republican party.

In his Monday show, Robertson said, “If [Chavez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.”

In an apparent reference to past US invasions of countries like Vietnam and Iraq, he added that “It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. … It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should be lining up to condemn — in the strongest terms possible — such immoral statements from a leader of their political base. Instead, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack merely referred to Robertson’s statement as “inappropriate.”

Calling for terrorist homicide against a democratically elected president is not merely “inappropriate” — it is illegal, unethical, and it must be investigated for potential violations of federal and international law.

Fortunately, there are a few Congresspeople who understand the implications of this extremist act. Representative Serrano said the comments were “beyond the pale.” Representative Lee chimed in that “President Bush should quickly and clearly condemn Pat Robertson’s call for the assassination of the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, particularly since his new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, has appeared on Robertson’s show.”

In addition, the National Council of Churches stated: “Pat Robertson’s call for the murder of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is appalling to the point of disbelief. It defies logic that a clergyman could so casually dismiss thousands of years of Judaeo-Christian law, including the commandment that we are not to kill.”

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr. said that Robertson’s “rhetoric, especially if taken to their conclusion, only undermines international diplomacy and dialogue, and has no place in today’s world.”

On Monday Venezuelan Vice President José Vincent Rangel noted in a Caracas press conference: “Before, they were openly calling for Chávez’s overthrow, now the call is to assassinate him.”

The next day, Robertson “clarified” his comments, incredulously stating that “I didn’t say ‘assassination.’ I said our special forces should ‘take him out. ‘Take him out’ could be a number of things including kidnapping.” Finally, on Wednesday, Robertson finally apologized, still putting the blame on Chávez himself for provoking him: “Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.”

His apology is welcome, but it calls attention to the larger picture: the context of ongoing US aggression towards Venezuela.

Robertson’s Comments Consistent with US Government Policy

For years the US government has been working to create a climate hostile to the democratically elected government of Venezuela — Pat Robertson’s statements are, unfortunately, consistent with the actions of the Bush administration. The administration supported the 2002 coup against President Chávez, and has continued to fund coup leaders in their efforts to remove President Chávez from office after the coup.

Recently, the US has stepped up efforts to isolate Venezuela in the region (although these efforts have been largely rebuffed by other Latin American leaders.) Last week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld continued the Bush administration’s rhetorical assault against President Chávez, re-issuing old and unsupported claims regarding Venezuela.

Yet in August 2004, President Chávez won a referendum on his presidency by 59%, results which were certified by the Organization of American States (OAS) and Carter Center as free and fair. His popularity currently stands at over 70% — much higher than his US counterpart’s, and one of the highest in Latin America. There is complete freedom of press, assembly, speech, and civil rights in the country, and there are no serious human rights organizations that have argued that these rights have been reduced under Chávez, nor do they compare unfavorably to other regional governments.

The policy of America’s governmental antipathy towards Venezuela stems more from that country’s creation of an alternative economic vision than unsubstantiated concerns regarding democracy. President Chávez has embarked on a series of economic reforms, such as funneling billions of oil industry profits into massive programs for health care, education, literacy, and clean water, and promoting regional integration, which fly in the face of Bush’s failed efforts to promote corporate globalization by establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The US “free trade” economic model has failed to deliver growth in the region; according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Latin Americans have experienced less than .5% per capita economic growth overall in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, Chávez’s economic policies (combined with oil profits) have made Venezuela the fastest growing economy in the region. But the American government’s dislike for Chávez’s vision certainly does not give anyone a license to kill.

In his comments, Robertson invoked the Monroe Doctrine, the primary instrument of the US policy of intervention and domination in the Western Hemisphere since 1823. “We can’t allow this to happen in our sphere of influence,” he said.

Past US involvement in the overthrow of democratically-elected governments weighs heavily on the minds of Latin Americans from countries like Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic. In addition, the US government has been connected to the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as the murders of Congolese President Patrice Lumumba, Chilean President Salvador Allende, and repeated attempts on the life of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Robertson’s comments have little basis in US or Venezuelan reality. He stated that if Chávez were to be assassinated, he didn’t “think any oil shipments will stop.” President Chávez has repeatedly stated that oil shipments from Venezuela – which represent approximately 15% of US imports – will continue steadily as long as the US does not commit violent acts of aggression against Venezuela’s sovereignty. Articles quoting his repeated declarations on this topic are available here.

Venezuela is expanding exports to other countries, including China, the Caribbean, and South America, but has maintained shipments to the US, which light up our Eastern Seaboard with heating oil and keep 14,000 Venezuelan-owned Citgo gas stations in business. Chavez has also offered to provide lower-cost gasoline to struggling Americans. But in the case of an attack on the physical integrity of the Venezuelan leader, the immediate cessation of exports from the US’s fourth largest source would be all but guaranteed.

The US government’s ongoing hostility towards President Chávez have created the climate in which a Republican leader feels comfortable in calling for the US to kill an elected head of state as part of US foreign policy on the cheap. Robertson’s comments should be a clarion call for a new foreign relations policy with Venezuela – one based on respect for a thriving democracy and an important economic ally.

Obligations Under Federal and International Law

Notwithstanding his apology, Pat Robertson should still be investigated — and potentially prosecuted — for calling for the murder of a democratically elected head of state. Under Title 18 of US Code Section 1116, “whoever kills or attempts to kill a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person shall be punished.” Section 878 of the same title makes it a crime to “knowingly and willingly threaten” to commit the above crime.

The US government is also obligated under international law to prevent and punish acts of terrorism against foreign heads of state, if those acts are conceived of or planned on US territory. The 1973 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons makes it a crime to commit a “murder, kidnapping, or other attack upon on the liberty of an internationally protected person;” [including] a “threat to commit any such attack.”

The US is also a signatory to the 1971 Convention to Prevent and Punish Acts of Terrorism Taking the Form of Crimes Against Persons and Related Extortion that are of International Significance of the OAS, Article 8a of which obliges “[t]he contracting states undertake to cooperate among themselves by taking all the measures that they may consider effective, under their own laws, and especially those established in this convention, to prevent and punish acts of terrorism, especially kidnaping [sic], murder, and other assaults against the life or physical integrity of those persons to whom the state has the duty according to international law to give special protection, as well as extortion in connection with those crimes.” This includes foreign heads of state as internationally protected persons.

The Christian Broadcasting Network should also be investigated for the potential illegality of using federally licensed airwaves to call for an assassination. In light of the $550,000 fine against CBS for the accidental airing of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” it would be extremely ironic if the CBN were not similarly punished for airing a call for terrorist homicide.

Considering the history of US involvement in the overthrow of democratically-elected governments, along with the current US hostility towards Venezuela, the incitement by a key Bush supporter to kill democratically-elected President Chávez should be a clarion call: It’s time to turn over a new leaf in our policy towards Venezuela, and build relations of respect with the most popular democratically-elected leader in Latin America.


Deborah James is the Global Economy Director of Global Exchange, www.globalexchange.org, and a frequent traveler to Venezuela. She is reachable at [email protected].

The human rights group Global Exchange is encouraging citizens to call the White House to ask the Bush Administration to “condemn the call for terrorist homicide. [The administration] must investigate the legality of calling for the assassination of a democratically elected foreign head of state, and abide by international law in prosecuting terrorist activity.” The public comment line at the White House is (202) 456-1111.

Source: Global Exchange