Leaving so soon? Three administrative notes
Jul 172006

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 “Venezuela: Terrorist Hub of the Western Hemisphere?”

The answer, judging from the case made at the hearing, is “not really.” The two State Department witnesses, and most members of Congress who attended, mainly criticized Hugo Chávez’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 Venezuela’s “clearest link with terrorism is a blatant lack of cooperation” with U.S. anti-terror efforts. Witness Fred Urbancic of the State Department’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 “not fully cooperating” 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 “state sponsor of terrorism” (those countries are Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan.) There is a wide gulf, however, between unwillingness to cooperate and being a “terrorist hub.”

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 – whose interest in Latin America extends to his family, as his father-in-law is former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – and Ted Poe (R-Texas), one of several new Texas Republicans who owes his seat to Tom Delay’s unorthodox 2004 redistricting. One Democrat attended: Brad Sherman, who shares a strong critique of Chávez 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 Chávez. 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 Venezuela’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 – and the freedom with which the FARC operates on the Venezuelan side of the common border – are the product of a conscious policy of guerrilla support, or simply the result of rampant corruption and poor governance. “While it remains unclear to what extent the Government of Venezuela provides support to Colombian terrorists,” said Urbancic, “it is difficult to believe that the Chávez government is unaware of, or helpless to prevent such activity.”

    Nobody at the hearing mentioned the continued strength in Venezuela, particularly in Táchira province, of Colombian paramilitaries – a decidedly anti-Chávez 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 Colombia’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 Chávez government is deliberately seeking to facilitate drug transit, or whether increased trafficking is resulting from individual corruption and general inattention.

“General inattention” may sound like an unsatisfying explanation for some of these phenomena, but it cannot be dismissed. The Chávez 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 (Colombia’s judiciary is swift and transparent by comparison).

President Chávez 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 – and they may prove to be a greater threat to Chávez’s rule than any ham-fisted U.S. attempt at regime change.

The same neglect of governance that has caused Venezuela’s murder rate to exceed Colombia’s may be making border areas more hospitable to Colombia’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.

“General inattention” may underlie some of the other official complaints aired at last Thursday’s hearing.

  • It is apparently quite easy, for instance, for third-country nationals to obtain Venezuelan citizenship documents. “Anyone in this room other than me,” Shapiro said, “can get a legitimate Venezuelan passport.” The witnesses had no information, though, about how many foreign nationals – much less citizens of Middle Eastern countries – 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 Venezuela’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 Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. All agreed that Venezuela is not doing enough to stop this; Urbancic, without citing proof, said he had “no doubt that Chávez is friendly toward these types of activities.”
  • 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 “police to police cooperation” against drugs was still good, though “low level and technical.”)

A few of the concerns raised at the hearing, however, are real and worrisome.

  • The hearing participants had much to say about Venezuela’s foreign policy. While many of President Chávez’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 Chávez “ostentatiously cultivates” 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 Iran’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 Korea’s missile tests earlier this month. Urbancic used the words “strategic alliance” 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 “role and voice would be amplified” 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 Venezuela’s recent arms purchases, a concern that CIP has also raised before. The Chávez government recently began taking delivery on an order of 100,000 AK-47 rifles purchased from Russia, and Mikhail Kalashnikov, the weapon’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 citizens’ militia that Chávez hopes to form, ostensibly to protect the country against foreign invaders. The militia is part of a “militarization of society” that Venezuela’s Bishops’ 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-Chávez 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 law’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 NGOs’ 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 Colombia’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 Venezuela’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 “drawing boundaries between those that fight terror and those that don’t,” while Rep. Sherman, the California Democrat, warned the Bush administration to stop counter-productive talk about “taking down” Chávez.

Right now, U.S. policy seems to be a haphazard combination of:

  1. Staying quiet and not unilaterally criticizing Chávez (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 Chávez to Hitler);
  2. Using official reports and designations to deliver condemnations of Venezuelan behavior (drug de-certification, human trafficking, “not cooperating fully” against terrorism);
  3. Hoping that neighboring countries act on their own to isolate Chávez; and
  4. Buying as much Venezuelan oil as we can.

The Bush administration faces few other options in Venezuela at the moment. Arming Chávez’s neighbors or setting up Venezuelan “contras” 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 “détente” with Caracas could do much to reduce tensions, President Chávez’s own level of interest in improving relations is unclear.

Also unclear, though, is the threat to U.S. security of Venezuela’s current behavior. Many of the issues raised at last week’s hearing – passports, information-sharing, border controls – 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 – not just the United States – 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 Chávez to begin with. If the Bush administration wishes to influence the Venezuelan people’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 “terrorist hubs” in the hemisphere, U.S. policy should seek regular contact with all political sectors – including pro-Chavez sectors. It should be our highest priority to change the conditions that have led Venezuelans’ perceptions of President Chávez to exceed their perceptions of the United States by wide double-digit margins. But those conditions were not discussed at last Thursday’s hearing.

2 Responses to “Not quite a “terrorist hub””

  1. richtiger Says:

    Well, I don’t know enough about Venezuela to write an academic, erudite post. I will say that from my position as an “ultra-liberal” Democrat, I find it hard to understand all the fuss in Washington over Chavez.

    While I personally don’t care for Chavez’s posturing, my casual reading and TV watching seem to indicate that his programs have given hope for the first time to the poorest of the poor in Venezuela. In fact, if Colombia had some sort of Chavez in the “Casa Nariño” of the president, I suspect that the FARC would see its support wither away; and new possibilities of peace and prosperity would at least open up for Colombia.

    I must say that I do get tired of being a resident of one of the most conservative states (Texas) in
    one of the most conservative countries (U.S.A.) of the world. Adam says that Venezuelan passports are easy to come by. Maybe I should look into getting my Venezuelan citizenship.

  2. Boli-Nica Says:

    Right now, U.S. policy seems to be a haphazard combination of:

    1. Staying quiet and not unilaterally criticizing Chávez (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 Chávez to Hitler);
    2. Using official reports and designations to deliver condemnations of Venezuelan behavior (drug de-certification, human trafficking, “not cooperating fully” against terrorism);
    3. Hoping that neighboring countries act on their own to isolate Chávez; and
    4. Buying as much Venezuelan oil as we can.

    Good breakdown, methinks that is the smartest thing to do overtly, just keep quiet let him run his mouth off. Most of Latin Americas social-democrats hate him by now. Once Lula gets reelected, look for Brazil to try to undermine Venezuela, overtly or covertly.

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