Sep 13/08 | NYTimes, WSJ & WashPost on Venezuela-US crisis and the REAL root of the problem: voluntary criminal activity by crazed Latin autocrats
New York Times
September 13, 2008
U.S. Says It Will Oust Venezuela Envoy, and Names 2 Officials as Rebel Backers
CARACAS, Venezuela — The United States stepped up the diplomatic skirmish with its left-wing adversaries in Latin America on Friday, saying it would expel the Venezuelan ambassador and declaring that Venezuela's top two intelligence officials had supported the "narco-terrorist activities" of rebels in the region.
The moves heightened the political tensions that have been building between the United States and Venezuela and Bolivia in recent days, sending shudders through financial markets here and rekindling fears in Washington of a cold war-style contest in the region as Venezuela grows increasingly close to Russia.
The recent salvos began on Wednesday, when Bolivia's embattled president, Evo Morales, expelled the American ambassador there, Philip S. Goldberg, accusing him of supporting rebellious groups in eastern Bolivia.
Then on Thursday, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said he was expelling the American ambassador to his country, Patrick Duddy, expressing solidarity with Mr. Morales and contending that an American-supported coup plot against him had been discovered.
The State Department responded by declaring Bolivia's ambassador to Washington persona non grata. Then on Friday morning, it said it would expel Venezuela's ambassador, while the Treasury Department accused the Venezuelan intelligence officials of aiding Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, "even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."
It was the first time the United States declared specific Venezuelan officials to be supporters of the FARC, but the designation stopped short of a more serious option debated in Washington in recent months: classifying Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. Such a move could significantly affect the $50 billion in annual trade between the countries, potentially rendering Venezuela's oil off limits to American markets.
Still, a Bush administration official said the expulsion of the American ambassador would inject fresh urgency into those deliberations, and that new economic steps against Venezuela were being explored.
"Our expelling their ambassador is not the end of things," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
A second American official said the accusations against the Venezuelan spymasters "could be an initial designation," possibly opening the way to Venezuela's being placed on the terrorism list.
Responding to the actions, Venezuela's foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, said in a statement on Friday that "Venezuela has decided to submit its entire relations with the United States to an intense review process."
In announcing its action on Friday, the Treasury Department said that the head of Venezuela's military intelligence agency, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, protected drug shipments from seizure by Venezuelan antidrug authorities and helped provide weapons to the FARC, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
The Treasury Department also said that Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the director of Venezuela's Disip intelligence agency, "materially assisted" the FARC's drug trafficking activities and pushed for greater cooperation between the Venezuelan government and the rebels.
In addition, the Treasury Department said a third official, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who resigned as interior minister this week, was the Venezuelan government's main weapons contact for the FARC. It said the rebel group used proceeds from narcotics sales to buy weapons from the Venezuelan government.
In accusing the three officials, Washington punctured Mr. Chávez's inner circle. Both intelligence officials have been longstanding confidants of the president, while Mr. Rodríguez Chacín was a key figure in Mr. Chávez's recent hostage-release negotiations with the FARC. None of the three men responded Friday to calls seeking comment.
Senior American officials said the designation of Venezuelan officials as supporters of the FARC was unrelated to the expulsions of American ambassadors in Bolivia and Venezuela. But the move came at a time of increased sparring between the United States and Venezuela over a variety of issues, including claims that Venezuela is growing as a transshipment point for cocaine and concerns about the safety of Venezuela's airports for American airlines.
Mr. Chávez's plans for military exercises with Russia's navy in the Caribbean have also raised the stakes of the political drama unfolding this week, pointing to efforts by Venezuela to aggressively counter American military influence in the region at a time when the United States Navy has reactivated a fleet to patrol Latin American waters.
"From the U.S. standpoint, the growing security alliance between Venezuela and Russia makes Chávez more of a problem today than was the case before the Georgia crisis erupted and the chilling of U.S.-Russia relations," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington.
But there are significant internal issues that could be playing into these disputes as well. Bolivia is grappling with violent, spreading protests in its increasingly ungovernable eastern lowlands. On Friday the Bolivian government announced a state of siege in Pando Province and sent troops there.
In Venezuela, Mr. Chávez's government is facing uncomfortable revelations about its spying operations and attempted bribery in a trial of a pro-Chávez Venezuelan tycoon taking place in a Miami courtroom, as well as rising inflation and potential losses in regional elections later this year.
"Don't believe for a moment that either expulsion had anything to do with an imminent danger of aggression from a waning U.S. administration already in way over its head in the Middle East and with Russia," said Adam Isacson, an expert on the Andean drug war at the Center for International Policy, a research group in Washington. "What we have here are two leaders badly in need of an external threat to rally their domestic bases at a volatile political moment."
As for the Bush administration, it has been unable to engage either of those governments effectively, and anti-American sentiment has been mounting in the countries for years, a phenomenon aptly stoked by both Mr. Morales and Mr. Chávez. In Venezuela, that sentiment took off in 2002, when the Bush administration tacitly approved a coup that briefly toppled Mr. Chávez.
With oil prices falling on international markets in recent weeks, the latest surge of political tension added to financial fears here on Friday. The currency, the bolívar, plunged more than 10 percent in black-market trading to 4.5 to the dollar, while Venezuelan bonds fell to their lowest values in four years on concern that Venezuela's oil exports to the United States might be disrupted.
While Mr. Chávez threatened yet again this week to halt American-bound oil cargoes, such a situation remains unlikely. For all the warnings, refusing to sell oil would probably hurt Venezuela more than the United States.
America is the country's main customer for its oil, and therefore the most significant financier of Mr. Chávez's attempts to assert great state control over Venezuelan society. By contrast, American refiners could buy oil elsewhere, though a disruption in Venezuelan oil supplies could cause ripples in an already weak American economy.
In fact, the skirmish already appeared to have some repercussions. Honduras said Friday that it had postponed the accreditation of the American ambassador there, voicing support for Bolivia and Venezuela yet insisting that it had not broken relations with the United States.
The Treasury Department's action on Friday was based on information gleaned from computers recovered in a raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador last March by Colombian security forces, as well as other intelligence sources, according to the second Bush administration official.
In copies of the computer files obtained by The New York Times last March, a member of the FARC's seven-member secretariat refers to General Carvajal, the Venezuelan military intelligence chief, as arranging an arms deal for the guerrillas through Panama. In another reference, General Carvajal was also mentioned as a liaison for dealing with the killing of six Venezuelan soldiers by the FARC on Venezuelan soil that month.
With Mr. Chávez's latest charges of an American-supported coup plot, several current and former military officers have been detained here for questioning, giving rise to complaints among domestic critics.
"Show respect, President," said Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of the newspaper El Nacional and a coordinator of a group opposing Mr. Chavez's socialist-inspired policies. "The only coup plotter is you," he continued, making a reference to Mr. Chávez's failed attempt in 1992 to overthrow Venezuela's government.
Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington, and Graham Bowley from New York.
The Wall Street Journal
U.S. Accuses Venezuelan Officials in Drug Case
September 13, 2008; Page A1
ELORZA, Venezuela -- The U.S. government, ratcheting up a diplomatic crisis with one of its leading suppliers of crude oil, placed sanctions on several high-ranking Venezuelan officials Friday, accusing them of aiding the drug trafficking of Colombia's main guerrilla army.
The Treasury Department said it would freeze financial assets and bar any business dealings with three key aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, including two intelligence officials and the former interior and justice minister."Today's designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents," said Adam J. Szubin, director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The U.S. move escalates a fast-growing diplomatic confrontation between Washington and a small bloc of anti-U.S. governments in the region that are led by Mr. Chávez's Venezuela and include Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Thursday, Mr. Chávez accused the U.S. of planning his overthrow and, amid a hail of vulgar insults, ordered U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy to leave the country within 72 hours. That followed a similar move Wednesday by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who kicked out U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg after accusing him of fomenting a separatist movement in eastern Bolivia. On Friday, Honduras said it would indefinitely postpone allowing the U.S. ambassador there to present his credentials out of solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the expulsions and added: "The charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false -- and the leaders of those countries know it."
Mr. Chávez is using the deepening confrontation to renew threats to cut off oil shipments. Thursday, he said the price of crude would double to $200 a barrel if he decided to end exports to the U.S. Analysts said they doubted Mr. Chávez would carry out his threats, because his government needs the oil revenue more than the U.S. needs the oil.
Relations between the U.S. and much of Latin America have festered during the Bush administration, mostly because of regional opposition to the Iraq war and the rise of populist governments antagonistic to traditional U.S. influence in the region. But relations took a sharp turn for the worse in recent days and weeks. Tensions began rising anew when Mr. Chávez and his left-wing allies all took Russia's side in its recent intervention in Georgia, and Venezuela further angered Washington by allowing two Russian long-range bombers to land in Venezuela.
Mr. Chávez's rhetoric and actions have diverted attention from mounting evidence this year that his government is tightly allied to the FARC, which has been trying to overthrow the Colombian government for five decades and is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. Earlier this year, files found in the computer of a dead guerrilla chief suggested the rebels were being financed and possibly armed by Mr. Chávez's government.
Evidence from the laptops has added to other intelligence from the U.S. government that suggests the collaboration went beyond money and weapons and extended into the drugs trade. A U.S. intelligence document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, says that Gen. Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, the head of Venezuela's military intelligence, protected a three-ton cocaine shipment from the FARC that was found last September in the Venezuelan port of Puerto La Cruz.
The Treasury action Friday targeted Gen. Carvajal along with Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, the head of Venezuela's overall intelligence agency, and Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín, interior and justice minister until last week.
The Treasury Department said Friday that Gen. Carvajal also had helped to provide the FARC with Venezuelan identity documents to make it easy for guerrillas to cross the Colombian-Venezuelan border. It also said Mr. Rodríguez Chacín was the "main weapons contact for the FARC" in Venezuela's government and tried to arrange a $250 million loan for the group.
Venezuelan government officials didn't respond to the U.S. accusations Friday. Attempts to reach government agencies were unsuccessful.
U.S. officials said they didn't believe this week's expulsion of the envoys was related to the imminent U.S. sanctions, which had been in the works for weeks. Rather, U.S. officials say the expulsions were related to domestic politics in both Venezuela and Bolivia. In Bolivia, President Morales is facing a growing protest movement from eastern provinces that oppose his plans to push through a new constitution, and Mr. Chávez faces local elections in November amid rising prices, rampant crime and other problems.
"We view this as a form of diplomatic and political panic -- a way of trying to push off blame for their own internal situation on to an external actor," said a senior U.S. official.
Bolivia appears on the brink of serious political bloodshed. At least eight people were killed in protests Thursday against the government's proposed constitution, which would restrict the money the eastern provinces receive from the production of gas and soy exports.
The expulsion of the U.S. ambassador by Mr. Morales inflamed his opponents, who view his anti-Americanism as a self-defeating parody of Mr. Chávez's brand of populist politics. Mr. Chávez promised Thursday to arm insurgents in Bolivia if the government falls, underscoring the degree to which Mr. Chávez intervenes in Bolivian life. Mr. Morales, for example, regularly hands out checks to mayors from a personal fund provided by Venezuela.
As far as Venezuela goes, Mr. Chávez has his own problems. In November, the populist leader faces gubernatorial, legislative and municipal elections where, analysts say they believe, he might lose as many as 10 of the country's 23 states as well as the country's most important cities, including the capital, Caracas. Such a defeat would shatter the virtual lock Mr. Chávez enjoys today in the country's politics, where he controls 21 of 23 states, all of the seats in the country's national assembly and all but a handful of the country's city halls.
Analysts say Mr. Chávez has helped to ramp up the crisis with his favorite ideological enemy in a bid to distract Venezuelan voters and energize his base ahead of the vote. "True, it may excite his hard-core supporters ... but many Chávez backers will be quite uneasy and critical of this clearly disproportionate, self-defeating move," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
While Mr. Chávez regularly accuses the U.S. of plotting to kill him, the latest accusations were even more colorful than usual. Among other things, Mr. Chávez said U.S. planes marked with Venezuelan colors were set to bomb the presidential palace of Miraflores, an echo of the failed 1961 Central Intelligence Agency-backed attempt to overthrow Mr. Chávez's ideological inspiration, longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Friday's announcement of sanctions comes after increasing U.S. frustration with Venezuela over the war on drugs. Last week, U.S. anti-drug czar John Walters said Venezuela was increasingly being used as a key transit point for cocaine shipments from Colombia's rebels headed either to Europe or to the U.S. East Coast.
"There's an utter lack of effort by the Venezuelans to deal with the problem," Mr. Walters said in a recent interview. He said that cocaine shipments from Venezuela had risen 500% in the past five years from an estimated 51 metric tons in 2002 to 256 metric tons in 2007.
Most of the cocaine coming from Venezuela originates with Colombia's FARC guerrillas, who Colombian intelligence analysts believe have more than 1,000 members inside of Venezuela. Last year, Mr. Chávez took up the cause of the FARC and pushed hard to get diplomatic recognition for the guerrillas. Colombian authorities estimate the FARC earn from $300 million to $600 million a year from their control of the cocaine trade.
In March, Colombian authorities recovered a treasure trove of data from the computers of Raul Reyes, a FARC leader killed in a cross-border raid in Ecuador. The documents found in Mr. Reyes's computers drew a disturbing picture showing a close alliance with Venezuela. In particular, Mr. Chacín and Gen. Carvajal appear to have played major roles in building the alliance.
--John Lyons in Santa Cruz, Bolivia contributed to this article.
U.S. Links 3 Chávez Aides to Guerrillas,Venezuelans Face Sanctions Over Ties to FARC In Colombia
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008; A01
BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 12 -- The United States on Friday accused three top aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of helping Colombian guerrillas traffic in cocaine and battle the Colombian government, the first time the Bush administration has publicly outlined tight links between what it calls a terrorist group and the highest echelon of Venezuela's government.
Former interior minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín and two leading intelligence officials helped the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia procure weapons in the group's effort to overthrow Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed government, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a document placing sanctions on the three. The United States and Europe have blacklisted the FARC, as the rebel group is known, as a terrorist organization. The group is widely reviled in Colombia for carrying out kidnappings and assassinations.
The new move by the Bush administration signals a low point in relations between the administration and Chávez, who has used his nation's vast oil wealth to help political allies such as Cuba and, critics say, radical leftist groups across Latin America. The designation marks an escalation in the Bush administration's conflict with Chávez, whose country is a major source of U.S. oil imports, at a time when the firebrand populist has significant economic leverage because of high world petroleum prices. The ideological confrontation has rippled across the region.
The U.S. announcement came a day after Chávez recalled his ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Álvarez, and said American Ambassador Patrick Duddy had 72 hours to leave Venezuela. Chávez called his decision an act of solidarity with his ally in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who on Wednesday ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Philip S. Goldberg, as his government faced rising unrest. Both South American leaders say the Bush administration is trying to foment turmoil, topple their governments and take over their countries' natural resources.
On Friday, the United States ordered Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán to leave. Also on Friday, Honduras postponed the accreditation of the U.S. ambassador, in support of Venezuela and Bolivia.
Tensions in the Andes have been high all week, as protesters in Bolivia sacked buildings and damaged natural gas installations in a direct threat to Morales's government. On Friday, Bolivian media reported that more than 10 demonstrators were killed in Pando state in the north on Thursday. Meanwhile, in a throwback to the Cold War, two Russian strategic bombers arrived in Venezuela this week for what were called training exercises in the Caribbean.
Gen. Jesús González, commander of strategic operations for the Venezuelan armed forces, said in a hearing before Venezuela's National Assembly that the country was "under threat" and that the United States was behind a recent plot to assassinate Chávez.
The United States usually issues sober denials to the Venezuelan government's frequent declarations of U.S. plots. This time, Washington upped the ante.
"I think the United States just thought this was enough," said Myles Frechette, a former American diplomat who worked in Venezuela. "It's an appropriate move by the United States, saying this isn't just Colombia saying this, we have other sources, these guys are doing this stuff and it's time to focus on it."
In a statement issued Friday morning, Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said that the move, known as a designation, "exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."
Under the designation, any property that the three Venezuelans own in the United States would be frozen, and any American doing business with them could face criminal penalties.
U.S. officials said that Rodríguez Chacín, who resigned Monday from the Interior Ministry for what he called personal reasons, was the Venezuelan government's main weapons point man for the FARC, facilitating the sale of arms to the rebels. Colombian and American officials said Rodríguez Chacín frequently met with rebel commanders, particularly with two top leaders who are said to be in Venezuela, Luciano Marín, alias Iván Márquez, and Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko.
Colombians became particularly incensed with Rodríguez Chacín when Venezuela brokered the FARC's release of two hostages in January. The liberation was taped by Venezuelan state television. As the hostages were handed over, Rodríguez Chacín told the rebels: "We are very aware of your struggle. You are the ones that have to maintain this effort."
The Treasury Department said Venezuela's military intelligence director, Hugo Carvajal, protected FARC drug shipments from seizure by honest Venezuelan authorities, provided weaponry and helped the rebels maintain their stronghold along Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela. American officials also said Carvajal provided FARC members with identification documents that allowed them to travel inside Venezuela.
Henry de Jesus Silva, director of the Venezuelan government's intelligence and prevention services, is accused of assisting the FARC in drug trafficking while advocating closer ties between the Venezuelan state and the rebel group.
American officials, speaking to reporters on the condition that their names not be used, said that much of the case against the Venezuelans came from computer hard drives that Colombian commandos recovered after their air force bombed a rebel camp inside Ecuador in March. The hard drives belonged to a senior rebel commander, Luis Edgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, who was killed.
"What has been striking for us about how President Chávez has managed the relationship is that he has developed a small coterie of officials who have gone beyond traditional corruption and sought to build a political and strategic relationship with the FARC," one senior Bush administration official said. He said the relationship was designed both to attack Colombia, which Chávez views as an obstacle to his international ambitions of building an alliance in South America, and to promote Chávez's image.
In May, Colombian officials provided The Washington Post with documents showing how Venezuelan officials appeared to have provided light arms, thousands of rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades to the FARC. The officials said that Venezuela also offered to help the guerrillas obtain surface-to-air missiles but that there was no evidence the guerrillas obtained such weapons. Interpol, the international police agency, studied the Reyes computer hard drives and concluded that the files containing the incriminating evidence had not been modified or falsified.
American officials said that in addition to the three Chávez aides who were named Friday, they know of other figures close to the Venezuelan leader who have helped the FARC. Colombian authorities have identified two of them as Gen. Cliver Alcalá and Amilcar Figueroa, who has had a role in organizing Venezuelan civilian militias.
"It's actually a fairly small group of people, but it's larger than three," said the senior American official. "We know who those people are, and we're watching them very closely."
The revelations in the Reyes computer have hurt Chávez's international reputation. With the FARC's own image in tatters in the wake of publicity about the group's violation of international humanitarian law, Chávez announced in June that the armed struggle was a relic of the past and called on the FARC to release the hostages it holds.
Uribe and Chávez met and announced they would patch up their relationship. But senior Colombian officials have said they believe that Chávez and other Venezuelan officials remain close to the FARC. "We don't believe a word he says," one official said recently.