Byline: Christopher Whalen, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT
Last year a popular but disorganized opposition movement in Venezuela threatened the government of Hugo Chavez, the self-styled populist who has taken that nation's battered political economy on a strange journey into social chaos after gaining power in 1999. In March of last year, Insight predicted the ouster of Chavez and he was forced out of office. But a bizarre combination of factors returned this protege of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to power.
More than a year later, experts on Latin America tell this magazine that Washington's soft line on Chavez in Venezuela adversely is affecting U.S. security and the stability of the entire region. This hands-off policy toward Chavez seems to originate from the highest levels of the Bush administration, these foreign-policy specialists say, and has evolved to the point of negligence of a crisis that already constitutes the greatest threat to regional stability since Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. Indeed, even as Congress has been intent upon removing travel restrictions to Castro's island prison, say these regional specialists, the Cuban leader is working with Chavez to destabilize governments in the region.
A senior U.S. official who worked in Venezuela during the rise of Chavez speaks with grudging admiration of the Venezuelan leader's classic Marxist-Leninist approach to expanding power: two steps forward, one step back. "Chavez is constantly underestimated by people who do not understand his patient, methodical approach to recruiting and strategy," says this retired Army officer. "Chavez never provokes the U.S. or other nations, but instead works obliquely to erode the position of his enemies."
As an example of Chavez's successful approach, the official cites U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) John Maisto, a former ambassador to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He reports that Maisto was the chief exponent of what the source calls the absurd argument that Chavez is a democrat at heart and that the United States should not "push" Chavez into the arms of Castro. "Maisto did the same thing in Nicaragua," says the official, "until Washington lit a fire under him." In fact, this observer says, Chavez has been a radical all his life, influenced by Marxist and authoritarian political theorists, and has been expanding his influence in the region using his links to Cuba and terrorist groups in the Middle East [see "Fidel May Be Part of Terror Campaign," Dec. 3, 2001, and "Fidel's Successor in Latin America," April 30, 2001].
On Oct. 6, U.S. News & World Report published a scathing expose by Linda Robinson on Venezuela's links to terrorism, including the fact that the Chavez regime "is giving out thousands of Venezuelan identity documents that are being distributed to foreigners from Middle Eastern nations, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon." And Robinson confirms earlier Insight reports that Chavez has provided training facilities for known terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamiyya al Gammat, which operate from Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. She cites Gen. James Hill of the U.S. Southern Command, who said in a speech last month: "These groups generate funds through money laundering, drug trafficking or arms deals and make millions of dollars every year via their multiple illicit activities. These logistic cells reach back to the Middle East."
Robinson also quotes Roger Noriega, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, as saying: "Any actions that undermine democratic order or threaten the security and well-being of the region are of legitimate concern to all of Venezuela's neighbors." Noriega told the House International
Relations Committee on Oct. 21 that "the government of Venezuela has a special responsibility to ensure that all Venezuelans are able to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of association and expression."
But readers of Insight should not take his comments as any indication of a coherent U.S. policy toward Venezuela, real or imagined. No amount of effort by Noriega and his like-minded peers can make up for the fact that the Bush administration has failed to confront the growing threat in
Venezuela. Indeed, when it suits his tactical situation, Chavez attacks Washington with impunity to energize his political supporters. Most recently, Chavez claimed that the CIA is plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government and assassinate him.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called such accusations "absurd," but insists that "it's up to the Venezuelan people to determine who their president will be, not up to the United States of America."
Though it went unnoticed in the major media, Robinson's article landed like a bomb in the hear-no-evil atmosphere from which Washington has ignored Chavez. According to well-placed sources in Caracas, shortly after the article appeared on newsstands, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro met with Chavez and assured him that the State Department is not in the least hostile to him. But an outraged administration source tells Insight that the Robinson article "just scratched the surface" and there is a great deal of activity in Venezuela that requires U.S. attention. Irate military sources say Shapiro, a career Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in Cuba and other Latin America posts, effectively has shut down intelligence gathering by the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
In September, Martin Arostegui of UPI reported Chavez had dismantled U.S.-trained intelligence units that tracked terrorist connections among the half-million members of the Venezuelan Arab community and instead had brought in Cuban and Libyan advisers to run his security services, according to U.S., British and other European diplomatic officials in Caracas. He also reported that Caracas refuses to cooperate with the FBI and other U.S. agencies trying to track the whereabouts of Venezuelan nationals of Arab descent with links to the 9/11 terrorists who flew an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon.
The lack of concern shown by Washington toward mounting evidence of a national-security threat emanating from Venezuela can be explained on a number of levels, say Washington insiders. First and foremost, says one, is the legacy of James Baker III, the former secretary of state and of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and today a key member of George W. Bush's inner circle. This well-placed source charges that Team Bush is so focused on Europe and Asia that it has tended to ignore Latin America. He says this appears to have resulted in the United States having no policy on the region generally, or even toward problematic venues such as Cuba and Venezuela.
For example, while members of the U.S. military and policy communities talk freely about the growing terrorist threat in Venezuela, some Bush officials deny any problem exists. After the appearance of the Robinson article, Brig. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, director of operations at the Pentagon's Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, was following the official line when he told the Miami Herald that Southern Command has no information about Venezuela supporting terrorists. Yet the daily El Mundo in Caracas says that the article in U.S. New & World Report "tells us nothing that we have not known for a long time."
Is it possible senior U.S. officials responsible for regional security don't know what is known even to Venezuela's tabloids?
No, sources say, the information is widely known, but the White House has not had a sufficient sense of urgency to forge a consistent policy on what to do about Chavez. Another reason suggested for the hands-off policy is that Chavez has welcomed U.S. oil-services companies even as he has built a forward-operations base for terrorists that potentially could be used to strike the U.S. mainland. Companies such as Halliburton, ConocoPhillips and other U.S. giants have taken the lion's share of Venezuela's oil-contract business, say senior officials in Washington, leaving little reason for these corporations to complain about Venezuela's left-wing government.
Indeed, Washington insiders say part of the reason the White House has not taken a strong position in dealing with Chavez is that the Marxist leader has several very effective advocates. First and foremost is U.S. Ambassador to the OAS Maisto. The inside account goes that Maisto was diverted from retirement, first to take the Western Hemisphere post on the National Security Council (NSC) and now the OAS post because Vice President Dick Cheney valued his expertise in the region and also because he wanted to thank Maisto for sorting out a difficult legal problem in Venezuela for Halliburton when Cheney was the company's chief executive officer and Maisto was serving under Clinton during his tenure as ambassador.
Maisto served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and to Nicaragua and as special assistant to President Bush and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the NSC. Several Latin specialists in Washington say Maisto has been among the chief proponents of ignoring the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, arguing that Chavez's bark is worse than his bite.
With an inside track to Cheney because of his former tenure in Venezuela and his work on "Plan Colombia" when he was assigned to Southern Command in Miami, Maisto reportedly has been one of Chavez's most effective protectors. Gonzalo Gallegos, public-affairs adviser at the State Department, refused to comment about Maisto's views on Chavez, but confirmed that U.S. officials recently have had discussions with the Chavez government "at the highest levels" about the need to be vigilant against terrorism.
Maisto is described as a pragmatist within the Bush inner circle, but there also are prominent Republicans reportedly working for Chavez behind the scenes, among them former New York congressman and GOP vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp.
The Wall Street Journal reported in June that Kemp developed a friendship with the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, former oil executive Bernardo Alvarez, and accompanied him on public-relations missions, including an editorial-board meeting at the Journal. Kemp's office at Empower America did not return repeated calls by Insight seeking to ask if the former congressman has been acting as an unregistered agent of Venezuela.
Kemp reportedly is trying to sell crude oil to the U.S. Strategic Reserve on behalf of a company formed by the Venezuelan government to sell royalty oil. The newsletter Petroleum World reports that the company, Free Market Petroleum LLC, has links to international fugitive Marc Rich, who received a last-minute pardon from outgoing president Bill Clinton. According to Petroleum World: "Jack Kemp ... is using his unquestionable influence in the U.S. political scene to try to swing a deal of over $1.2 billion in Venezuelan oil, serving on the side as a public-relations adviser to Bernardo Alvarez and the Chavez government. The 'normal' commissions on such a deal would be of the order of $50 million. Not bad."
Neither Kemp nor his firm are registered with the U.S. Justice Department as foreign agents for Venezuela.
Also helping to keep Chavez in power has been the attention of Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), at the time of the brief coup the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, and his chief foreign-policy aide, Janice O'Connell. Columnist Robert Novak wrote in April that Dodd and particularly O'Connell hold a grudge against Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, a conservative and anticommunist. This antagonism to Reich in particular, and conservatives generally, fuels Dodd's aggressive stance on U.S. policy in Latin America.
Novak reported and Insight sources confirm that, with the Democrats in control of the Senate, O'Connell made it clear to career officials in the State Department that it was she who was calling the shots on U.S. policy in Latin America. As a result, career State Department officials were unwilling to take risks by supporting the democratic opposition in Venezuela for fear of retribution by O'Connell. Foreign-policy insiders say that during the 48-hour period when Chavez was removed from the presidency, Dodd's office was very active and successful at guaranteeing that Washington did nothing to assure Chavez's permanent ouster. "Dodd clearly called the shots on Latin America policy," said one State Department official. "There is no conservative counterbalance to Janice O'Connell in the Senate now that Jesse Helms is gone." O'Connell did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this article.
A year ago this magazine reported that House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) sent Bush a powerfully phrased letter warning that the triumvirate of political extremists leading economic powerhouse Brazil, oil giant Venezuela and the terrorist-sponsoring regime of Cuba had become an emerging Axis of Evil that the United States must stop. Nonetheless, the Bush administration studiously has ignored the deteriorating political situation in Caracas and, indeed, has gone out of its way to comfort and reassure the Chavez government even as he uses thuggish tactics to obliterate what remains of Venezuela's political opposition.
One of the more egregious examples of Washington's conflicting signals regarding Venezuela came when the State Department stripped the U.S. visa of Venezuelan Gen. Enrique Medina after he participated in a public protest against the Chavez government. In a May 21 letter from the U.S. Embassy obtained by Insight, general counsel Sandra J. Salmon informed Medina that his tourist and consular visas had been revoked because of "involvement in terrorism." The real crime committed by the former military attache for Venezuela in Washington and division commander was that he was seeking political redress from Venezuela's anti-American regime.
One military officer who has known Medina for decades says that he is a true friend of the United States and that the withdrawal of his visa by the State Department for resisting Chavez illustrates the policy muddle that now prevails in Washington. Medina wrote in the Caracas daily El Universal on Oct. 8 that while Chavez may believe he has "neutralized the armed forces in Venezuela with acts of open repression and less obvious attacks on political liberties," the day is approaching when the military will not tolerate further political outrages.
Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst for Latin America Stephen Johnson argues that ignoring Chavez no longer is the best way to deal with him, if it ever was, and that the White House needs to articulate a clear policy toward this Castroite demagogue. Indeed, some U.S. officials believe that because of the growing presence of Middle East terrorists operating freely in the country, the Bush administration soon may be faced with a Caracas-based threat or an actual attack on the U.S. homeland from radical Islamists operating from a training base in that country.
A senior U.S. military officer intimately familiar with the situation confirms that the all-important Venezuelan army has been "cleansed" of independent elements and now is under the control of pro-Chavez activists and the growing ranks of Cuban advisers. "A lot of former officers in the Venezuelan army rue the day that Chavez was allowed to return to power," the U.S. expert on Venezuela laments. "They believe that last year's abortive coup may have been the last chance to save their country."
Christopher Whalen is a New York-based writer and investment banker and a contributing writer to Insight.…