Bill Berkowitz: Vulnerable Venezuela
The Bush Administration and its surrogates launch another round of attacks on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez
Two weeks ago, the Chicago White Sox, led by manager Ozzie Guillen (Oswaldo Jose Guillen Barrios as he is known in his home town of Ocumare del Tuy, Venezuela), swept the Houston Astros to win their first World Series since 1917. As popular as baseball is in both Venezuela and the United States, the victory -- engineered by the first Latin American-born manager of a World Series team -- is unlikely to be the catalyst for a warming trend in political relations between the two countries.
The most recent round of acrimony between the two countries began in late August when, during a broadcast of "The 700 Club," the Reverend Pat Robertson advocated the assassination of Venezuelan Present Hugo Chavez: "I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it... We have the ability to take him out," Robertson said. While many were quick to condemn his comments, some observers suggested that they went beyond the mere ramblings of an uninhibited televangelist; perhaps they were a trial balloon -- launched by a longtime Team Bush supporter -- on behalf of an administration that has shown little but disdain for the Venezuelan president.
After more than two decades of having gotten a pass for provocative, offensive, and often ridiculous comments, several of Robertson's religious and political colleagues unloaded on him.
Joe Loconte, who specializes in faith-based issues as a William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the conservative Heritage Foundation, warned that Robertson was alienating a large segment of the American people already suspicious about "the role of religion in public life."
In a column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Loconte suggested that, "evangelical leaders... marginalize Robertson and his media empire -- publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform."
While Robertson issued a quasi-apology, the State Department said little.
Since Hugo Chavez became President of Venezuela, Team Bush has done much to destabilize and isolate the Chavez government, as well as to demonize Chavez: A U.S.-backed coup in April 2002 failed to remove him, and a recall election -- during which the opposition received U.S. support -- particularly from the National Endowment for Democracy -- was unsuccessful. (Since he came to power, Chavez has held eight elections, referendums and plebiscites.) Late last month, Israel acceded to U.S. demands that it put on hold, or cancel, a large arms deal it had brewing with Venezuela.
In mid-September, President Bush issued "Presidential Determination No. 2005-36," which branded Venezuela (and Burma) outlaw countries in the drug wars. Dan Feder, writing for The Narcosphere -- a project of the Narco News Bulletin -- characterized the president's decision as another component of the "Cubanization of Venezuela."
Interestingly enough, the presidential determination recommended that, "support for programs to aid Venezuela's democratic institutions, establish selected community development projects, and strengthen Venezuela's political party system is vital to the national interests of the United States."
While "a drug war decertification generally implies blocking a country from international aid and loans," it is significant that Bush's Presidential Determination encourages aid for Venezuela's so-called "democratic institutions," Feder reported. "So, while aid to Venezuelan 'democracy' (code for funding the opposition to President Chavez), most recently seen in the National Endowment for Democracy's $107,000 grant to Sumate) will be allowed to continue, Venezuela will most likely be cut off from other forms of aid and loans from institutions like the World Bank."
While Bush has not directly advocated regime change in Venezuela, he has relied on surrogates and longtime supporters to make the administration's desires known that Venezuela, and Latin America, would be better off without Hugo Chavez.
On October 9, the Rev. Pat Robertson was back on television, this time as a guest on CNN's "Late Night," where he again had sharp words for Chavez. After suggesting that Hurricane Katrina and other recent natural disasters might be a signal that the "End Times" is hurtling down the pike, Robertson turned his attention to the Venezuelan president.
Sans assassination talk, Robertson linked Chavez to Iran, one of President Bush's "axis of evil" countries, Osama bin Laden, and even to the jailed terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Robertson claimed that the United States "could face a nuclear attack from Venezuela": "The truth is, this man is setting up a Marxist-type dictatorship in Venezuela, he's trying to spread Marxism throughout South America, he's negotiating with the Iranians to get nuclear material and he also sent $1.2 million in cash to Osama bin Laden right after 9-11." The televangelist maintained that Chavez sent a "warm congratulatory letter to Carlos the Jackal, he's a friend of Mommar Qaddafi," he said. "He's made common cause with these people that are considered terrorists."
Although Robertson told CNN that he had "apologized" for advocating Chavez's assassination, and that he would "be praying for him," he added that, "One day we will be staring at nuclear weapons and it won't be Katrina facing New Orleans, it's going to be a Venezuelan nuke." And in a remark that sounded suspiciously close to comments that set off the late August brouhaha, Robertson pointed out that "my suggestion was, isn't it a lot cheaper sometimes to deal with these problems before you have to have a big war."
When asked where he was getting his information from, Robertson said, "Well, sources that came to me. That's what I was told."
The sources Robertson may have been depending on could be the same sources that fueled a recent report in the Unification Church-owned Washington Times. On October 17, Rowan Scarborough reported that Venezuela was beginning to take steps toward developing nuclear weapons: "The Venezuelan government has made overtures to various countries about obtaining nuclear technology, according to U.S. officials, who worry that President Hugo Chavez might be taking the first steps in a long road to develop nuclear weaponry."
"We are keeping an eye on Venezuela," one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Washington Times. "My sense is that Venezuela has not been as successful with its nuclear entreaties with other countries as it would have liked." Iran is one of countries that Venezuela has supposedly approached. The administration claims that Chavez is developing a close relationship with the mullahs in Iran. "They are quite kissy-kissy with Iran," said the U.S. official. "There is a lot of back and forth. Iranians show up at Venezuelan things. They are both pariah states that hang out together."
Chavez has carried out actions that have clearly rubbed the Bush Administration the wrong way. He continues to be close with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and he has stressed that Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, has a right to control it own oil, and to determine its own affairs without the interference of the U.S.
In April, Venezuela "canceled the long-running IMET (International Military Education and Training) program, which had seen Venezuelan soldiers traveling to the U.S. for training, as well as U.S. officers giving courses in Venezuela." According to a report by Narco News Bulletin's Dan Feder, "the cancellation was the direct result of findings by a determined young Venezuelan-American attorney and journalist named Eva Golinger, who had discovered a direct connection between the program and coup-plotters in the Venezuelan military."
On August 31, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans, Citgo, the US gasoline distribution affiliate wholly owned by the Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), announced on that it would donate $1 million to help in rescue efforts for areas.
A few weeks back, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., accused the Bush Administration of "protecting" Luis Posada Corriles, a right- wing Cuban wanted on terrorism charges in Venezuela.
On October 12, at an indigenous gathering marking Columbus Day -- renamed by Chavez as the "Day of Indigenous Resistance" -- he accused the Sanford, Florida-based evangelical group, New Tribes Mission, with being agents of imperialism and suggested that the group leave the country.
With all that is on the administration's plate these days, it is unlikely that it will turn its full attention to Venezuela. However, if Chavez continues to assert hegemony over its oil, continues to grow his influence amongst other Latin American leaders, and continues to be a thorn in the side of the Bush Administration, the U.S. could again turn its attention south.
For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.