Who Is Protecting Hugo Chavez? Why Has the Bush Administration Failed to Confront the Growing Threat in Venezuela Even as Hugo Chavez Expands His Influence by Buddying Up with Terrorists?

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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. …