Spain-Venezuela Ties Strained as Hugo Chavez Stonewalls ETA Investigation

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Venezuela has said it will not extradite Arturo Cubillas, an alleged top militant of the separatist group ETA. Spanish authorities today moved toward an official request, which Hugo Chavez is unlikely to support.

A standoff between Spain and Venezuela is heating up as Spanish authorities move toward requesting the extradition of an alleged ETA member working within the government of President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela said last week it would not extradite Arturo Cubillas, the Basque separatist group's alleged top militant in Latin America, because local law does not allow extraditions of citizens. A Spaniard, Mr. Cubillas became a naturalized citizen in 1993.

But the decision of Spain's prosecutor general to ask today for the National Court to request the extradition underscores how authorities are under pressure to act more forcefully against Mr. Chavez. His defiance and ongoing refusal to cooperate with Spanish authorities could ultimately trigger a powerful reaction from Europe and the United States, including labeling the country a state sponsor of terrorism, analysts say.

"If [the Spanish government] wanted to, it could pressure Europe and its allies, including the US, to include Venezuela in the list of state sponsors of terrorism," says Oscar Elia, an ETA expert with the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group who has written extensively about the Basque group. "This could blow over if Chavez was more helpful, but he doesn't even deny it. Instead he is defiant and arrogant."

Chavez stonewalls investigation

The Spanish investigation, which dates to 2008, produced an indictment in February alleging use of Venezuela as a training ground for militants with ETA and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Both groups are labeled terrorist organizations by the European Union and the United States.

The case "demonstrates Venezuelan governmental cooperation in the illicit collaboration" of the two groups, which included explosive- handling, intelligence sharing, and surface-to-air missile-training seminars, the indictment said.

After months of stonewalling, Chavez on Oct. 11 opened a separate case in Venezuela to investigate the allegations against Mr. Cubillas. But he also dismissed them as fabrications orchestrated to discredit his government. "Foolish words fall on deaf ears," he said.

Chavez is not new to accusations of harboring and abetting terrorist groups. Colombia has accused him of arming, financially aiding, and protecting FARC guerrillas. Washington has also on several occasions voiced its suspicions and warned Chavez, but he has always denied having anything more than ideological sympathies, and no Western court case has challenged that.

"The ties between the FARC and ETA in Venezuela are increasingly evident. But for Chavez it's a question of image," says Mr. Elia. "He has taken over Cuba's role as the main exporter of revolutions and he wants to uphold that, but this is serious because it involves aiding international terrorism. …

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