The New York Times
Spetember 12, 2008
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.
Venezuela’s Embassy in Washington on Friday. Political disputes between the United States and Venezuela are on the rise.
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.