October 16, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Carmen Godoy is sure the Yankees are plotting an invasion. She's heard her president say so over and over again in the decade he has been in power.
So at yet another pro-government rally -- one at which a band played a rousing version of "Yankee Go Home" -- Godoy expressed relief that four Russian naval vessels will arrive in Venezuela next month for joint exercises with Venezuela's military.
"We need help," said Godoy, 52. "We cannot wait and watch what happened to Iraq happen to us."
The message that the Bush administration has evil designs on Venezuela has been a cornerstone of state policy here, frequently repeated in speeches by President Hugo Chávez and other officials, as well as on news shows and in documentaries by the omnipresent state media.
But with the president's socialist party facing tough regional elections in November, the government is ramping up the warnings like never before and taking the requisite actions against what officials say are shadowy assassination plots and U.S.-orchestrated destabilizing plans.
Nothing Chávez has done in the past, though, compares to Venezuela's $1 billion weapons deal with Russia and military exercises that are bringing Russian warplanes and ships to the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War.
Former officials in the Chávez administration, pollsters and political analysts say the president is trying to raise the specter of U.S. meddling and whip up his followers in order to deflect attention from such issues as mounting crime, high inflation and a shaky economy.
"This is something Chávez has used to his favor," said Milos Alcalay, who was Chávez's ambassador to the United Nations until 2004, when he resigned. "President Chávez has used his anti-Americanism as a form of government policy, not only internationally but also when faced with a series of errors that he cannot explain."
Chávez's strategy calls for discrediting opposition leaders as "Little Yankees" and as coup-plotters intent on selling out Venezuela to the imperialists. For Venezuelans, the message is that "if you vote for the opposition, you will be voting for the United States, for the people who want to invade our country," said Luis Vicente León, a pollster with Datanalysis, a Caracas polling firm.
In ratcheting up his quarrel with Washington, Chávez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy last month in solidarity with his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had ousted the American ambassador in La Paz after accusing him of fomenting unrest. Chávez then traveled to Moscow, where the Kremlin extended a $1 billion loan for arms purchases and offered to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy.
U.S. officials have played down the naval maneuvers in the Caribbean, noting that the Russian vessels do not carry nuclear weapons.
But some former Venezuelan officials said that Chávez sees a parallel to the Cold War brinkmanship of the 1960s, when Cuba and the Soviet Union challenged the United States off the Florida coast.
The Venezuelan government reveres Cuba's Fidel Castro, who fended off a U.S.-organized invasion and numerous assassination plots. To thwart similar threats, Chávez has closely followed Cuban defense doctrine, including arming civilian militias, purging the military of disloyal officers and building an intelligence service closely advised by the island nation's vaunted spy masters.
For Chávez, "the script of today is the script of the 1960s, when there was a conflict between two superpowers," said retired Gen. Francisco Usón, who advised the president on military matters until he broke with him in 2002. "He manages the scenario that Venezuela is going to be invaded by the Marines, and here I have a Russia card and they will come to the rescue."
In explaining the Russian maneuvers, Venezuelan officials point to the Bush administration's recent decision to reactivate the U.S. Navy's 4th Fleet in the Caribbean after a lull of nearly 60 years..
Chávez also characterizes his country's alliance with the Kremlin, irritated by U.S. support for Georgia after it lost a brief war with Russia, as an act of defiance against a world order dominated by the United States. "Go ahead and squeal, Yankees," Chávez said last month after Russia's deployment was announced.
Stephen Flanagan, an expert on Eastern Europe, said there are also economic incentives for Russia -- Venezuela has signed contracts worth $4.4 billion since 2005 to buy assault rifles, military helicopters and combat aircraft.
"Chávez has wanted to portray that the world system with the United States as such a dominant power is a bad thing," said Flanagan, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This is something that the Russians have been saying rather forcefully in some recent speeches."
Venezuelan officials and the state media portray the U.S. government as consumed with Chávez, even as the Bush administration has been mired in two distant wars and an economic crisis.
On the program "La Hojilla" ("The Razor"), hosted on state television by Mario Silva, a Chávez ally, talk often turns to assassination plots. On a recent show, Silva played secretly taped recordings of high-ranking Venezuelan military officers who were supposedly plotting an assault on the presidential palace.
"There is no way of hiding that there has been a conspiracy," said Congressman Mario Isea, chairman of a special commission in the National Assembly that investigates assassination plots. "It is all part of a plan to kill the president before the American and Venezuelan elections."
Documentaries on the CIA-supported coup of Chile's socialist president, Salvador Allende, in 1973 are daily fare on Venezuelan state television, with pundits warning that the same could happen here. One recent program included excerpts of the 1997 Barry Levinson film "Wag the Dog," in which a Washington spin doctor hatches a war. Carlos Lanz, an associate of the president, provided commentary, explaining that the film showed how the United States topples governments.
Bernardo Álvarez, who until last month was Chávez's ambassador to Washington, said the Bush administration has been hostile at every turn, refusing to sell arms to Venezuela while working to head off Venezuela's diplomatic efforts at building what the government here calls "a multipolar world." He also singled out the U.S. aid funneled to opposition groups in Venezuela ahead of a failed coup in 2002.
"United States participation in right-wing destabilization efforts are not new. They are historic," he said.
Still, some former Venezuelan officials -- many of them leftists with no affinity for the United States -- scoff at that characterization. Luis Miquilena, a former interior minister and one of Venezuela's leading leftist thinkers of the last 60 years, said Chávez has begun to believe his own rhetoric.
"I am completely sure that Chávez and people close to him once laughed knowing how far-fetched they were in their inventiveness," said Miquilena, a father figure to Chávez until they parted in 2002. "But they have repeated it so many time that it looks like they have started to believe it."