February 05, 2008
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. intelligence community sees Cuban leader Raúl Castro pursuing a cautious economic reform agenda as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continues his push to challenge U.S. interests in Central and South America.
The conclusions were part of Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell's annual threat assessment report presented Tuesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In his written statement, McConnell, speaking on behalf of 16 U.S. government intelligence agencies, painted a picture of Chávez stung by a domestic electoral defeat and a worsening economy at home but determined to ``unite Latin America, under his leadership, behind an anti-U.S., radical leftist agenda and to look to Cuba as a key ideological ally.''
Much of the 45-page report deals with the Middle East and al Qaeda, but it also contains some of the most detailed assessments to date of the intelligence community's perception of Latin America. It paints a favorable overall picture of a region consolidating its democracies and praises leaders in Colombia and Mexico for taking on drug trafficking organizations and armed groups.
But the assessment clearly sees Chávez as a continuing threat to U.S. interests. The statement says ''a high priority'' for Chávez will be supporting the indigenous socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales and gaining a foothold in Central America, thanks to his alliance with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
The report raises the prospect of a showdown in El Salvador, which is governed by a staunch U.S. ally in President Tony Saca.
''We expect Chávez to provide generous campaign funding to the [left-wing] Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front [FMLN] in El Salvador in its bid to secure the presidency in the 2009 election,'' the statement says.
The report also notes Iran's growing ties with some nations, especially Venezuela. The two countries have signed agreements on everything from agriculture to automobiles manufacturing and have ''discussed cooperation on nuclear energy,'' but the U.S. intelligence community was ''not aware of any significant developments as a result'' of the talks.
McConnell expects Chávez to ''remain unengaged'' on the drug-trafficking front ``unless the drug trade is perceived to damage his international image or threaten his political longevity.''
The intelligence community also sees Chávez spending more time bolstering his domestic support after a defeat in his referendum on constitutional reforms in December. McConnell is critical of Chávez's socialist economic initiatives.
''Without question, policies being pursued by President Chávez have Venezuela on a path to ruin its economy,'' McConnell states in the report.
The report also addresses the widely reported -- but not publicly acknowledged -- differences between Raúl Castro and Chávez. The ''sidelining of Fidel Castro in favor of his brother Raúl may lead to a period of adjustment in Venezuela's relations with Cuba,'' McConnell states.
But the two are expected to ''smooth over'' any differences. Venezuela is believed to provide a net subsidy of $1 billion to Cuba, according to McConnell. Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since July 2006.
Raúl Castro is seen taking ''cautious, incremental steps'' on some expanded role for the private sector, especially in agriculture. The intelligence community believes Raúl and the communist leadership have no plans for political reforms, but warn that Cuba faces difficult challenges ahead.
''Policy missteps or the mishandling of a crisis by the leadership,'' McConnell said, ``could lead to political instability in Cuba raising the risk of mass migration.''
The political situation is expected to ''remain stable at least in the initial months following Fidel Castro's death'' with the ruling elite and armed forces united behind Raúl Castro.