September 19, 2008
Russia's dispatch of long-range bombers to Venezuela for joint military exercises may not signal the start of a new Cold War, but it does provide more evidence that Hugo Chávez has become the chief source of hemispheric instability. To be sure, the Venezuelan president is increasingly unpopular in Latin America (and increasingly unpopular at home), and his influence over regional politics is declining. But high oil prices have given him the power to cause trouble and threaten U.S. interests.
Venezuela's announcement that it will stage war games with Russian forces was at least partly a response to American security policy. Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy reestablished its Fourth Fleet, which had been disestablished way back in 1950. The Fourth Fleet will oversee U.S. naval activities in Latin American and Caribbean waters. By planning sophisticated military maneuvers with Russian warships, Chávez is making a bold show of anti-Yankee defiance. (The Kremlin, of course, has its own reasons for wanting to irritate Washington.)
His pockets bulging with oil wealth, Chávez has spent billions of petrodollars on Russian weapons. He has also reached out to Iran and cultivated warm bilateral relations. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, Western officials fear that the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah "is using Venezuela as a base for operations." One Western anti-terrorism official told the Times that the Venezuela-Iran relationship is "becoming a strategic partnership."
In mid-June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two Venezuelans--a former Venezuelan diplomat (Ghazi Nasr al Din) and a travel agency operator (Fawzi Kan'an)--as financial supporters of Hezbollah and froze their assets. Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), charged the Venezuelan government with "employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers."
In its latest survey of global terrorism, released this past April, the U.S. State Department noted that in March 2007, "Iran and Venezuela began weekly Iran Airlines flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas. Passengers on these flights were not subject to immigration and customs controls at Simón Bolívar International Airport." In June 2007, a man suspected of plotting to bomb New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport "was arrested at the airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on board a flight destined for Caracas, Venezuela. He had an onward ticket to Tehran. Venezuelan citizenship, identity, and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making Venezuela a potentially attractive way station for terrorists."
Speaking of terrorists, Chávez's links to the drug-running FARC terrorists of Colombia have recently become much clearer. Several months ago, Colombian military forces launched a raid on FARC combatants and wound up recovering computer files that detailed Venezuelan efforts to arm and finance the left-wing guerrillas. Last week, shortly after Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, Treasury froze the assets of three Venezuelans--two top intelligence officials and a former government minister--whom it accused of financing the FARC.
"Today's 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," said Szubin, the OFAC chief. One of those Venezuelans, former interior and justice minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, allegedly tried "to facilitate a $250 million dollar loan from the Venezuelan government to the FARC in late 2007." FARC leaders are heavily involved in narcotics trafficking. By supporting them, Venezuela is aiding a criminal network with global connections.
As Venezuelan economist and Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím wrote in late 2007, Venezuela under Chávez "has become a major hub for international crime syndicates. What attracts them is not the local market; what they really love are the excellent conditions Venezuela offers to anyone in charge of managing a global criminal network." According to Naím, "A senior Dutch police officer told me that he and his European colleagues are spending more time in Caracas than in Bogotá, Colombia, and that the heads of many of the major criminal cartels now operate with impunity, and effectiveness, from Venezuela." Earlier this month, a Colombian drug kingpin named Edgar Vallejo Guarín was arrested in Madrid. As Reuters reported, "Spanish police found Vallejo Guarín had used Venezuelan documentation to obtain residency in Spain under the assumed name of Jairo Gómez" (emphasis added). Chávez is not representative of the broader Latin American left, and he is less powerful than he appears. Nevertheless, his regime has become a menace to democracy and stability throughout the region. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda argues that certain regional powers, such as Mexico and Colombia, have been reluctant to stand up to Chávez because they "are terrified of being left hanging by Washington."
It is, alas, not an unreasonable fear. The failure of Congress to approve a free trade deal with Colombia, the closest and most important U.S. ally in South America, has had a profoundly negative effect on U.S. credibility. Meanwhile, as Castañeda observes, the recent U.S.-Mexican wrangling over a bilateral aid package (the Mérida initiative) left Mexican president Felipe Calderón feeling "embarrassed." "If anything," Castañeda writes, "the incident made Calderón even more wary of waging the battle of ideas against Chávez and the Castro brothers."
The lesson for John McCain and Barack Obama is clear: The next U.S. president must unequivocally affirm America's commitment to supporting and protecting its democratic partners in Latin America. That means, among other things, pressing Congress to approve the U.S.-Colombia free trade pact, aiding Mexico in its increasingly bloody war on drugs, and deepening regional economic cooperation. In addition, the United States must continue putting a financial squeeze on those Venezuelans (inside and outside of government) who are funneling money to terrorist groups and global crime networks.
Chávez often speaks and acts like a buffoon; his rhetoric and antics can be utterly risible. Yet due to what journalist Michael Reid (in his book Forgotten Continent)calls "an accident of history"--the recent boom in oil prices--the Venezuelan strongman cannot be ignored.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a senior fellow with Hudson Institute and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.