Mérida, August 10th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – In his written testimony to the US Senate, President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Venezuela, Larry Palmer, weighed in on a regional diplomatic controversy by saying Venezuela supports Colombian insurgents and violates human rights, prompting President Hugo Chavez to say the nominee “disqualified himself.”
Palmer’s Senate testimony came at a crucial moment two and a half weeks after Colombia, the US’s main military and political ally in South America and Venezuela’s next-door neighbor, went before the Organization of American States (OAS) to accuse Venezuela of tolerating the presence of Colombian insurgents, which the US and Colombia deem terrorist, in its territory. Venezuelan officials suspected the move was aimed at establishing a pretext for military intervention to weaken or topple the Chavez government, which opposes US militarism and free trade policies in the region.
In his written statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 27th, Palmer, a US diplomat with extensive experience in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, committed to work with the US Congress “to advance our interests in Venezuela and the region” and to “safeguard American economic interests and investments.”
A week later, in written answers to questions posed by the committee, Palmer supported Colombia by reiterating the accusations against Venezuela as fact.
“I am keenly aware of the clear ties between members of the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerillas. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) maintain camps in Venezuela, and members of the FARC high command have occasionally appeared in public in Caracas. The Venezuelan government has been unwilling to prevent Colombian guerrillas from entering and establishing camps in Venezuelan territory,” he wrote.
Palmer further cited evidence which Interpol already ruled inadmissible in a court of law: “Moreover, FARC hard drives obtained by the Colombian government in a March 2008 raid in Ecuador provided damaging information on the nature and extent of the longstanding relationship between the FARC and members of the Venezuelan government.”
Palmer called for the OAS to be made “more effective” through stronger sanction and enforcement mechanisms, and encouraged OAS member states to “decide to honor their commitments under the Charter and stand up in defense of democracy in Venezuela, or wherever it is threatened.”
The OAS is the main international entity in the region in which the US remains an influential member, while progressive governments elected across South America in the past decade have built new multilateral bodies independently of the US. One such body, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), took a markedly more neutral stance on the Colombia-Venezuela conflict during a recent emergency summit.
When asked what his top areas of concern are, Palmer cited “threats to human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Venezuela, including threats to “freedom of expression and of the press, the right to own private property, and freedom of association for civil society.” He further criticized “the increasing centralization of power in the executive branch,” and President Chavez’s “explicit rejection of the separation of powers.”
As an avenue of influence on Venezuelan society, Palmer advocated that the US “increase our efforts to support civic leaders, human rights activists, journalists and others who are working toward positive change in Venezuela.” The nominee is well-situated to carry out this task as the current president of the Inter-American Foundation, which channels US government funds to non-government organizations in line with US interests in Latin America.
This is of particular concern to the Venezuelan government, because a recent report by the FRIDE Institute revealed that the US National Endowment for Democracy in team with other US and European partners have contributed approximately US$40 million to anti-Chavez organizations, including subversive groups involved in an attempted military coup d’état against the president in 2002.
In addition, Palmer said professionalism and morale were down in the Venezuelan armed forces due in part to Chavez’s “preference for political loyalty over professional talent.” He also said he was concerned about Venezuela’s alliance with Cuba, which the US has labelled a state sponsor of terrorism.
Following Palmer’s comments to the Senate, the Venezuelan Foreign Relations Ministry formally requested an explanation from the US government, stating, “The content of these statements constitutes a serious precedent of meddling and interventionism by someone who has yet to set foot on Venezuelan territory.”
On Thursday, US State Department Spokesperson Philip Crowley stated that Palmer will remain the US’s nominee for ambassador and that Palmer’s comments to the Senate “convey our best judgment on issues between the United States and Venezuela.”
During his Sunday talk show, President Chavez said Palmer “disqualified himself as an ambassador by breaking all the rules of diplomacy.”
“I’m asking the president of the United States to fire him from his post. I cannot accept this gentleman as ambassador in Venezuela. The best the US Government can do is to look for another candidate,” said Chávez.
On Monday, Crowley said the US had not received formal notification of Palmer’s rejection, and the Senate has yet to confirm Palmer. The US will “continue to try to help the Venezuelan Government to understand that this individual can be an effective interlocutor between our two governments and can help advance the interests of both of our countries,” he said.
The current US Ambassador, Patrick Duddy, was expelled during former US President George W. Bush’s term over the US’s alleged meddling in the internal affairs of Bolivia, Venezuela’s ally. Relations were restored and Duddy has returned since Obama took office, but the US’s tacit support for the coup d’état in Honduras last year and its military deal with Colombia soured relations again.