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March 24, 2010

Say what you mean, and mean what you say

Posted in: U.S. Policy, Venezuela

Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, in 2008, telling a FARC commander, “We are with you. Be strong.”

In an unusual moment last week, the four-star general who heads the U.S. Southern Command had to clarify his comments after questioning from members of Congress.

On March 11, Gen. Douglas Fraser, asked by Sen. John McCain about linkages between the Venezuelan government and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

We have continued to watch very closely for any connections between illicit and terrorist organization activity within the region. We have not seen any connections, specifically, that I can verify that there has been a direct government-to-terrorist connection. We are concerned about it, I’m skeptical, I continue to watch for it. …

There has been some old evidence, but I don’t see that evidence, I can’t tell you specifically whether that continues or not.

A week later (March 18), under similar questioning in the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Fraser said something different:

We do see a long-term relationship that exists between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. That has been evidenced, if you go back and look at the computer records that came out of the Rafael (sic.) Reyes— capture of that computer. That continues on. There is safe haven, there is financial, logistic support, there’s safe haven for the FARC provided. And all the evidence I have says that continues— the evidence I have doesn’t say that it— that I can explicitly say it’s continuing, but I can’t say it’s explicitly not continuing. So based on the evidence to date, I would say that support still continues.

The following day, Southern Command posted a clarification to its blog.

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and I spoke this morning on the topic of linkages between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. There is zero daylight between our two positions and we are in complete agreement:

There is indeed clear and documented historical and ongoing evidence of the linkages between the Government of Venezuela and the FARC.

This recalls the February “Annual Threat Assessment” testimony [PDF] of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

[Chávez] has restricted Colombian imports, warned of a potential military conflict, and continued his covert support to the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

So does the Obama administration believe that Hugo Chávez and the government of Venezuela are helping the FARC? Do the words “linkages” and “support” mean military assistance with lethal consequences? It is very important to be precise about this, because of what it implies.

“Hugo Chávez is helping the FARC” means “Hugo Chávez is helping a group that kills Colombians on Colombian soil and seeks to overthrow the Colombian government.” Or, more simply, “Hugo Chávez is helping to kill Colombians and overthrow Colombia’s government.”

Wars — “just” wars — have been fought over less than that. By this interpretation, a Colombian military response on Venezuelan soil would not even be preemptive. It would be retaliatory.

Words matter. Colombia could interpret (misinterpret?) the administration’s message as a “green light,” a signal that Colombia would be justified in taking military action in Venezuelan territory, and that Colombia would have U.S. support in the political and military firestorm that would follow such action.

Precision is important, because it will determine what actions follow. The question the Obama administration needs to answer unambiguously, then, is: does it believe that Venezuela’s government, as a matter of policy (as opposed to the actions of corrupt or rogue elements), is aiding and abetting the FARC today?

In Venezuela’s interest?

The FARC is widely hated in Colombia, condemned internationally for abuses ranging from massacres to narcotrafficking to the use of landmines and child soldiers, and militarily weaker than it was a decade ago, with no chance of taking power by force of arms. Given all that, it’s hard to argue that it would be in Venezuela’s self-interest to aid them. (And Hugo Chávez has not stayed in power for more than 11 years by neglecting his self-interest.)

Why, then, would Venezuela want to help the FARC? Perhaps out of misplaced ideological solidarity. Or perhaps Hugo Chávez still hopes to win a diplomatic victory by helping to broker a peace in Colombia. Perhaps out of a desire to balance out U.S. power by aligning with all declared enemies of the United States (including Iran). Perhaps out of a belief that the FARC would be a first line of defense against a hypothetical U.S. invasion via Colombia. Or perhaps merely out of corruption.

The evidence we know about

But all of this is pure speculation. What follows is the evidence about Venezuela-FARC ties that we have seen through open sources. If there is more — imagery, documents, communications intercepts, corroborated witness testimony — we don’t know about it.

  • Evidence from files recovered from the laptop computer of Raúl Reyes, the FARC Secretariat leader killed in a March 1, 2008 Colombian Army raid into Ecuador. These files point to discussions between FARC representatives and Venezuelan government officials about financial support and the provision of identity cards and weapons. These discussions seem to have increased in 2007, during President Chávez’s short-lived tenure as an authorized facilitator of talks to free civilian hostages in FARC custody. According to an indictment [PDF] issued recently by a Spanish judge, the files also mention FARC cooperation with Spain’s ETA terrorist group via an ETA member working in the Venezuelan government. Colombian officials believe that a Venezuelan referred to in the files as “Angel” is Hugo Chávez.

    These two-year-old computer files remain the strongest evidence indicating a FARC-Venezuela tie, and Venezuela’s insistence that they are a fabrication has not been a convincing response. However, the Reyes files are not sufficient evidence on their own. They contain some inaccuracies and wild fabrications, and often appear to be the words of far-flung guerrilla leaders relying on secondhand information to make inflated claims of their own success. There is no reason at all to doubt that the FARC has asked Venezuelan interlocutors for support. What remains unclear — in part because the Reyes computer claims have not been corroborated — is whether Venezuelan officials truly complied, and if so, whether they had President Chávez’s authorization.

  • Words of support for the FARC from President Chávez and other Venezuelan officials. In the days after Raúl Reyes was killed, President Chávez held a moment of silence in his honor on Venezuelan national television. Participating in a 2008 unilateral hostage release, Venezuela’s interior minister at the time, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, shook a guerrilla’s hand and told him on camera, “We are with you. … Be strong. We are following your cause.” (The U.S. Treasury Department later called Rodríguez Chacín “the Venezuelan government’s main weapons contact” for the FARC.)

    These and other words of support for the FARC have yet to be explained away. But Chávez has, on other occasions, also called on the FARC to release all of its hostages and disband. So statements alone prove nothing beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • The Swedish rockets. Last July, the Colombian government announced that it had recovered from the FARC a number of AT4 shoulder-fired rockets, manufactured by Saab in Sweden. The rockets’ serial numbers corresponded to those Sweden had sold to Venezuela in the 1980s. Chávez later claimed that the rocket launchers had been stolen from a Venezuelan port in 1995, years before he became president.
  • The freedom with which the FARC operates on Venezuela’s side of the border. Colombian officials frequently contend that the FARC maintains encampments in Venezuela, that top FARC leaders spend much time there unmolested, and that Venezuelan officials routinely issue Venezuelan identity cards to FARC members. It is unclear whether this is a result of official Venezuelan policy or local-level corruption. No matter what, though, it is absolutely certain that Venezuela is doing almost nothing to prevent the FARC from using its territory, or punishing officials who assist, or fail to confront, the Colombian guerrillas.

    One could say the same, however, about other illegal Colombian groups that operate in Venezuela, both “new” paramilitaries and narcotrafficking organizations. Paramilitary groups are active in the northern part of the border region (across from Norte de Santander, Cesar and La Guajira). And one of Colombia’s most powerful narcotraffickers, Wilber Varela alias “Jabón,” was killed by a rival gang in the resort town of Mérida, about 100 miles from the Colombian border, in early 2008.

    Is the FARC’s latitude on the Venezuelan side of the border, then, a result of a Venezuelan policy to aid and abet them? Or is it part of a general lack of control of territory, and dysfunction in the security forces, that extends from the greatly increased flow of drugs across Venezuela to the alarming murder rate in Caracas? (Either way, it’s a huge problem for Venezuela.)

The response

If the U.S. and Colombian governments conclude from this (or from classified evidence) that Venezuela continues to aid the FARC, then both countries have an important choice to make. Ambiguity and vague accusations are not a proper response to such a serious charge.

Nor, however, should the response be military. War between Colombia and Venezuela is in nobody’s interest. It could escalate, with significant loss of life. It could destabilize the Andes. And it’s hard to define what a military “victory” in such a scenario would even look like.

Instead, if Washington and Bogotá have evidence that Venezuela is sponsoring killing and attempted state overthrow in Colombia, they must go to the UN Security Council. Article 39 of the UN Charter says the Council “shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken.” Sponsorship of the FARC would certainly qualify as a threat to peace and an act of aggression.

Unless the evidence presented is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, going to the UN — much less the OAS General Assembly — might not succeed. But such a decisive step would be preferable to the ambiguity and — as we saw last week — apparent contradiction in the administration’s message.

Instead of confusing signals that Colombia could misinterpret as a green light for military action, it’s time for more precise language. And if the precise language leads to more direct and decisive diplomatic action, then so be it.


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