On Thursday we sat in on a hearing held by the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism. We had to leave early due to another meeting, but we wanted to see at least some of an event entitled â€œVenezuela: Terrorist Hub of the Western Hemisphere?â€
The answer, judging from the case made at the hearing, is â€œnot really.â€ The two State Department witnesses, and most members of Congress who attended, mainly criticized Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€™s government for not doing enough against potential terrorist threats, not for promoting or spreading terrorism. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Illinois), for instance, said that Venezuelaâ€™s â€œclearest link with terrorism is a blatant lack of cooperationâ€ with U.S. anti-terror efforts. Witness Fred Urbancic of the State Departmentâ€™s counter-terrorism office summarized it thus [PDF]:
The Government of Venezuela has stated that it regards the U.S.-led war on terrorism as a ruse for U.S. imperial ambitions. It has refused to condemn narco-terrorist organizations based in Colombia, and has publicly championed the cause of terrorists in Iraq. Although it is unclear how they were obtained, some weapons seized from Colombian narco-terrorists have come from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities. And the Venezuelan Government has done little to improve the security of travel and identity documents it issues.
These charges are not new; the State Department recently designated Venezuela as a country â€œnot fully cooperatingâ€ with the United States against terror, forcing a ban on arms sales to Caracas that begins October 1. Venezuela is the only country given that designation that is not also considered a â€œstate sponsor of terrorismâ€ (those countries are Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan.) There is a wide gulf, however, between unwillingness to cooperate and being a â€œterrorist hub.â€
During the hour we spent at the hearing, five members of Congress were present. Four were Republicans: Subcommittee Chairman Ed Royce (R-California), immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), Rep. Weller â€“ whose interest in Latin America extends to his family, as his father-in-law is former Guatemalan dictator EfraÃn RÃos Montt â€“ and Ted Poe (R-Texas), one of several new Texas Republicans who owes his seat to Tom Delayâ€™s unorthodox 2004 redistricting. One Democrat attended: Brad Sherman, who shares a strong critique of ChÃ¡vez with the chief Democrat on the full House International Relations Committee, his fellow Californian Tom Lantos.
Two witnesses testified: Urbancic and Charles Shapiro, the principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Shapiro knows Venezuela well: he was U.S. ambassador in Caracas during the failed April 2002 coup attempt that briefly unseated ChÃ¡vez. That coup, which the U.S. government handled badly (meeting with the newly installed president and delaying its vote to condemn the action in the OAS), proved to be a turning point in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. Shapiro did not submit written testimony.
The witnesses and members voiced some legitimate concerns; a few are listed below. Others, on the other hand, were less convincing.
- Some, such as Rep. Weller, hinted that Venezuelaâ€™s government is actively aiding the FARC guerrillas, citing cases of Venezuelan weapons captured in guerrilla hands. The hearing did not make clear, though, whether these arms transfers â€“ and the freedom with which the FARC operates on the Venezuelan side of the common border â€“ are the product of a conscious policy of guerrilla support, or simply the result of rampant corruption and poor governance. â€œWhile it remains unclear to what extent the Government of Venezuela provides support to Colombian terrorists,â€ said Urbancic, â€œit is difficult to believe that the ChÃ¡vez government is unaware of, or helpless to prevent such activity.â€
Nobody at the hearing mentioned the continued strength in Venezuela, particularly in TÃ¡chira province, of Colombian paramilitaries â€“ a decidedly anti-ChÃ¡vez force that the Venezuelan government has also been unable to expel from its territory. The hearing participants also failed to demonstrate how the situation along the Colombia-Venezuela border differs from what occurs along the borders with Panama and Ecuador, where small, overwhelmed security forces generally choose not to pick a fight with Colombian armed groups in empty, remote zones. In all of Colombiaâ€™s neglected border areas, all neighboring-country military officials face similar incentives to look the other way, or even to make big profits by selling off some of their weapons stockpiles.
- The hearing also left unresolved an accusation first reported in the Miami Herald last fall: an Ecuadorian intelligence report claiming that South American leftists were receiving guerrilla warfare training on Venezuelan soil. The State Department witnesses were not able to corroborate this report in a public hearing.
- Hearing participants also accused the Venezuelan government of allowing drugs from Colombia to transit through Venezuelan territory, citing an increase in suspicious flights leaving Venezuela. Like the charges of guerrilla support, however, the hearing did not establish whether the ChÃ¡vez government is deliberately seeking to facilitate drug transit, or whether increased trafficking is resulting from individual corruption and general inattention.
â€œGeneral inattentionâ€ may sound like an unsatisfying explanation for some of these phenomena, but it cannot be dismissed. The ChÃ¡vez government deserves praise for spreading oil wealth to poorer populations and increasing access to nutrition, health and education. But it also appears to be neglecting some very basic aspects of governance.
This is reflected, for instance, in skyrocketing violent crime rates, particularly in cities like Caracas. It is reflected in decaying infrastructure, such as the notorious case of the collapsed viaduct connecting Caracas with its airport and coast. It is reflected in the scarcity of corruption investigations and prosecutions, and the inefficiency of the judicial system (Colombiaâ€™s judiciary is swift and transparent by comparison).
President ChÃ¡vez inherited many of these problems from his predecessors, whose misgovernment propelled him to power in the first place. But these governance indicators continue to show little or no improvement â€“ and they may prove to be a greater threat to ChÃ¡vezâ€™s rule than any ham-fisted U.S. attempt at regime change.
The same neglect of governance that has caused Venezuelaâ€™s murder rate to exceed Colombiaâ€™s may be making border areas more hospitable to Colombiaâ€™s armed groups. The same neglect of governance that allows key roadways to crumble may also allow drug smugglers to pass unhindered through Venezuelan territory. Where some U.S. officials and legislators see a plot to foster terrorism, there may simply be a government that, in its rush to implement a program of dramatic political and economic reforms, has left many other urgent needs unattended.
â€œGeneral inattentionâ€ may underlie some of the other official complaints aired at last Thursdayâ€™s hearing.
- It is apparently quite easy, for instance, for third-country nationals to obtain Venezuelan citizenship documents. â€œAnyone in this room other than me,â€ Shapiro said, â€œcan get a legitimate Venezuelan passport.â€ The witnesses had no information, though, about how many foreign nationals â€“ much less citizens of Middle Eastern countries â€“ had been caught trying to enter the United States with falsely obtained Venezuelan documents. They also were unclear about whether it was official Venezuelan policy to be lax with passport enforcement, or whether it was the result of low-level corruption. Shapiro said that part of the problem was that Venezuelaâ€™s passport operation has effectively been contracted out to Cuban government officials.
- The hearing participants also raised the issue of potential fundraising for Hezbollah and similar Islamist groups among the Arab or Muslim communities in places like Margarita Island on Venezuelaâ€™s Caribbean coast. All agreed that Venezuela is not doing enough to stop this; Urbancic, without citing proof, said he had â€œno doubt that ChÃ¡vez is friendly toward these types of activities.â€
- The witnesses cited a Venezuelan failure to respond to U.S. information requests about potential terrorist activity. According to Shapiro, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas has requested twenty meetings in the past year with Venezuelan officials who have counter-terror responsibilities, but no such meetings have been granted in the past two years. (Shapiro did say, though, that â€œpolice to police cooperationâ€ against drugs was still good, though â€œlow level and technical.â€)
A few of the concerns raised at the hearing, however, are real and worrisome.
- The hearing participants had much to say about Venezuelaâ€™s foreign policy. While many of President ChÃ¡vezâ€™s overseas statements and actions appear designed merely to irritate Washington, they do place his government on the side of some rather unsavory regimes. Urbancic said that Hugo ChÃ¡vez â€œostentatiously cultivatesâ€ ties to U.S. enemies. He noted that earlier this year, Venezuela, Cuba and Syria were the only International Atomic Energy Agency countries to vote against referring Iranâ€™s nuclear program to the UN Security Council. Venezuelan officials were some of the only government representatives in the world to offer a defense of North Koreaâ€™s missile tests earlier this month. Urbancic used the words â€œstrategic allianceâ€ to describe an upcoming Venezuelan visit to North Korea, Vietnam and Iran.
Because of this, the Bush administration is going all out to prevent Venezuela from getting a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in October. Usually, each region of the world forms a consensus about which country to send to the council, and that country enjoys easy approval in the General Assembly. This year, however, there is no regional consensus: while some countries (Brazil, Argentina, several Caribbean countries) are backing Venezuela, others (Mexico, Colombia, several Central American countries) are backing Guatemala, the U.S. favorite. The General Assembly will have to choose the next Latin American Security Council member.
The Bush administration worries that Venezuela would side with Iran and North Korea in upcoming Council debates and votes. While Venezuela would have no veto power on the Council, Shapiro worried that its â€œrole and voice would be amplifiedâ€ by its presence on the UN body and on subcommittees with terrorism responsibilities. Whatever the outcome, the Security Council vote this fall is likely to polarize Latin America further as all states are forced to take a side.
- The hearing also devoted time to Venezuelaâ€™s recent arms purchases, a concern that CIP has also raised before. The ChÃ¡vez government recently began taking delivery on an order of 100,000 AK-47 rifles purchased from Russia, and Mikhail Kalashnikov, the weaponâ€™s elderly inventor, was on hand to help inaugurate a new rifle factory on Venezuelan soil. The guns are supposed to go to a million-person citizensâ€™ militia that ChÃ¡vez hopes to form, ostensibly to protect the country against foreign invaders. The militia is part of a â€œmilitarization of societyâ€ that Venezuelaâ€™s Bishopsâ€™ Conference condemned in a statement last week.
- Though it has little bearing on terrorism, members of Congress present at the hearing expressed concerns about the health of democracy in Venezuela. The national legislature, whose members are 100 percent pro-ChÃ¡vez due to an ill-advised opposition boycott of congressional elections, is nearing approval of a new law to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations. The lawâ€™s wording is very vague; much will be left up to the executive branch, which will author regulations for its implementation. In the best of cases, these regulations will merely improve transparency over NGOsâ€™ operations and increase government oversight over donations from foreign countries. However, a broad spectrum of Venezuelan NGOs worries that the law could be used to block foreign contributions to groups that criticize the government, or at least require that such funds first go to a government agency. They are also concerned that the law could allow the government to deny the legal status of groups that fail to toe the official line.
Pro-Uribe congressmen caused an international outcry in 2003 when they sought to pass similar legislation in Colombiaâ€™s congress that would have placed a government barrier between foreign donors and Colombian NGOs. A similar outcry is warranted now in the case of Venezuela.
In all, the hearing was unsatisfying. Not only did it fail to reach a convincing conclusion about Venezuelaâ€™s relationship to terrorism, it featured almost no discussion of what the United States can or should do. The members of Congress in attendance failed to go beyond generalities: Rep. Poe, the Texas Republican, suggested â€œdrawing boundaries between those that fight terror and those that donâ€™t,â€ while Rep. Sherman, the California Democrat, warned the Bush administration to stop counter-productive talk about â€œtaking downâ€ ChÃ¡vez.
Right now, U.S. policy seems to be a haphazard combination of:
- Staying quiet and not unilaterally criticizing ChÃ¡vez (the State Department has rarely taken the bait under Assistant Secretary Thomas Shannon, while the Defense Department has said little publicly since February, when Donald Rumsfeld compared ChÃ¡vez to Hitler);
- Using official reports and designations to deliver condemnations of Venezuelan behavior (drug de-certification, human trafficking, â€œnot cooperating fullyâ€ against terrorism);
- Hoping that neighboring countries act on their own to isolate ChÃ¡vez; and
- Buying as much Venezuelan oil as we can.
The Bush administration faces few other options in Venezuela at the moment. Arming ChÃ¡vezâ€™s neighbors or setting up Venezuelan â€œcontrasâ€ should be off the table: this is a terrible idea whose negative effects would reverberate throughout Latin America for a generation. On the other hand, even though engagement or â€œdÃ©tenteâ€ with Caracas could do much to reduce tensions, President ChÃ¡vezâ€™s own level of interest in improving relations is unclear.
Also unclear, though, is the threat to U.S. security of Venezuelaâ€™s current behavior. Many of the issues raised at last weekâ€™s hearing â€“ passports, information-sharing, border controls â€“ were technical and could be easily resolved through improved engagement. Others, such as arms purchases, democracy, and relations with rogue regimes, should be important to many countries â€“ not just the United States â€“ and could be addressed through a more multilateral approach.
Security concerns aside, of course, many in the administration and Congress want to get tougher with Venezuela simply because they cannot countenance the presence of another leader in the region (after Castro) who rhetorically defies the United States and disparages the free-market model.
The United States does not get to decide, however, whether Venezuela should have such a government. That is up to the Venezuelan people, who chose ChÃ¡vez to begin with. If the Bush administration wishes to influence the Venezuelan peopleâ€™s views, it can start by seeking to ease polarization within the country, not exacerbating it.
That also means improving the U.S. image in Venezuela. Instead of saber-rattling and holding hearings about â€œterrorist hubsâ€ in the hemisphere, U.S. policy should seek regular contact with all political sectors â€“ including pro-Chavez sectors. It should be our highest priority to change the conditions that have led Venezuelansâ€™ perceptions of President ChÃ¡vez to exceed their perceptions of the United States by wide double-digit margins. But those conditions were not discussed at last Thursdayâ€™s hearing.