February 06, 2007
A U.S. intelligence community report described a weaker Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez still eager to challenge U.S. interests, with Iran's influence on the rise
WASHINGTON -- Although weakened by domestic problems, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is continuing to challenge U.S. interests in Latin America with the help of Cuba and increasingly Iran, the U.S. intelligence community warned on Tuesday.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro is seen moving cautiously on economic reforms as he consolidates his hold on the island, according to the Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell's annual threat assessment presented before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In his written statement, McConnell, speaking for 16 U.S. government intelligence agencies, painted a picture of a Chávez stung by a domestic electoral defeat and a worsening economy 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 is also one of the most detailed assessments by the intelligence community of Latin America. It says the region is consolidating its democracies and praises leaders in Colombia and Mexico for taking on drug trafficking organizations and armed groups.
McConnell, while clearly identifying Chávez as a threat to U.S. interests, also noted the limits of the firebrand populist. He has antagonized many leaders, is seen as a divisive figure and faces economic woes at home.
Chávez, McConnell told lawmakers, suffered a ''stunning setback'' in a constitutional reform referendum in December that provided a boost to his opponents and ``may slow his movement toward authoritarian rule.''
He identified Bolivia, Nicaragua and to a lesser extent Ecuador as nations whose leaders were seeking greater presidential power, weakening civil liberties, promoting economic nationalism, resorting to anti-U.S. rhetoric and aligning with Cuba, Venezuela and, increasingly, Iran.
McConnell told senators high oil prices would help him ``stave off the consequences of his financial mismanagement.''
''Without question,'' he added, ``policies being pursued by President Chávez have Venezuela on a path to ruin its economy.''
Chávez is also seen gaining a foothold in Central America, thanks to his alliance with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and 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 report states.
McConnell said Venezuela and Iran 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.''
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 stated.
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, following health issues that caused him to cede power to his younger brother.
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 leadership have no plans for political reforms, but warn that Cuba faces difficult challenges ahead.
''We assess the political situation in Cuba probably will remain stable during at least the initial months following Fidel Castro's death,'' McConnell said in his testimony. ``Policy missteps or the mishandling of a crisis by the leadership could lead to political instability, raising the risk of mass migration.''
On Colombia, military operations by the government have weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The leftwing group is using more political tactics to ''try to distract or restrain the government'' and releasing hostages ``to gain international recognition and pressure the government into offering a demilitarized zone.''