As Venezuela’s embattled democratic opposition gears up for its planned August referendum against that South American nation's increasingly authoritarian ruler, President Hugo Chavez is consolidating his “Bolivarian Revolution” and subverting what’s left of the country’s constitutional democracy. Calling the legal referendum on his rule a “mega-fraud,” Chavez is doing all he can to thwart the peaceful recall effort. Many fear that he has little intention of allowing a vote. Meanwhile, the migration of frightened Venezuelans to the US continues.
There is no doubt that Chavez – with Fidel Castro’s help -- is creating a Cuban-style socialist state in Venezuela. Scholar Maxwell Cameron calls it the world's first "slow-motion constitutional coup." In the process, Chavez also is breathing new life into Fidel Castro’s dying and decrepit dictatorship. But what’s even more worrisome is the fact that the mercurial Chavez is turning the large, oil rich country into a base for international terrorism.
Sadly, not many people recognize this threat. In my July 2003 American Legion Magazine article -- The Other "Axis of Evil" I described the dangerous and growing alliance between Latin America’s two major anti-American rogue states and international terror groups operating throughout the hemisphere.
Focusing on the close and burgeoning partnership between Castro and Chavez, I explored the links both Castro and his new Caracas-based clone have with Latin American communist guerillas, drug dealers and Islamic terrorists. Referring to Castro as an anti-American godfather, “increasingly advising his new alter-ego in Venezuela…” I wrote that Chavez, “with Castro’s direction and support – may be turning Venezuela into a new anti-American terrorism hub.”
Noting Castro’s long history of subversion, espionage and terrorism -- including the October 2001 arrest in Washington, DC of Cuban spy Ana Belen Montes, the former senior Cuba analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) -- my article highlighted Castro's continuing threat to the US. Cuba remains on the US State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. Chavez and Castro are intimately linked, meeting and talking regularly. Chavez has said Cuba and Venezuela are, in effect, “one team.”
The partnership is so close that Venezuela’s intelligence and security service, known as DISIP, reportedly has come under control of the Cuban intelligence service, the DGI. Because of this, US intelligence agencies have ended their longstanding liaison relationships with their Venezuelan counterparts. Hundreds of Cuban advisors, coordinated by Cuba’s military attaché in Caracas, are also in charge of the elite presidential guard who defend Chavez against potential coups or military unrest.
Meanwhile, Chavez has purged and is reorganizing the Venezuelan military, making it personally loyal to him. Thousands of Cuban “teachers, doctors and sports trainers” also have flooded Venezuela. Their real job is to indoctrinate and train fanatically pro-Chavez paramilitary groups known as “Bolivarian Circles” that are part of a new 100,000-person People’s Reserve militia recruited from Venezuela’s poorest classes. These groups provide alternative armed cadres outside regular military channels loyal to Chavez.
While most of the mainstream media have ignored this growing menace, one major news magazine, US News and World Report, followed my piece with an in-depth investigative report in October 2003, Terror Close to Home: In Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends Mideast, Colombia and Cuba, confirming my exposition and clearly detailing the danger of Chavez’s links to Castro and terrorism.
The weekly newsmagazine said that its two-month review, "including interviews with dozens of US and Latin American sources, confirms the terrorist activity," adding that "the oil-rich but politically unstable nation of Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists."
Most prominent in Venezuela’s list of friendly terror groups are the communist FARC guerillas (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) who have terrorized Colombia for over 30 years and have killed thousands of people. Gen. Gary Speer, former acting chief of America’s Southern Command, who said during a Senate Armed Services committee hearing in March 2002 that “we are very concerned about President Chavez … the FARC operates at will across the border into Venezuela.”
“There are arms shipments originating in Venezuela that get to the FARC and the ELN [National Liberation Army],” he added. “We have been unable to firmly establish a link to the Chavez government, but it certainly causes us suspicions. The company that Chavez keeps around the world, although under the guise of OPEC, certainly causes additional concerns as well.” The US News piece details the exact location of FARC camps inside Venezuela where Venezuelan military advisors reportedly train FARC guerillas.
Sadly, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry stated in a February speech in Boston that the murderous FARC guerillas had "legitimate complaints" despite the fact that they have the support of less than three percent of Colombia's citizenry.
Chavez’s links to Middle East terrorists may be more indirect but US officials note that Venezuela is providing support--including identity documents--that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups. U.S. News noted that Chavez's government has issued thousands of “cedulas,” the equivalent of national ID cards, to people from Cuba, Colombia, and Middle Eastern `countries of interest' like Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Lebanon that host foreign terrorist organizations.
According to US News, some of these cedulas were subsequently used to obtain Venezuelan passports and even American visas, “which could allow the holder to elude immigration checks and enter the United States.” Chavez also was the only western leader to travel to Iraq to visit Saddam Hussein prior to his ouster by the US.
This article provoked an outcry from Chavez and his henchmen. The Venezuelan ambassador to the US, Alvarez Herrera, wrote an angry letter to the editor of US News deriding the article’s accusations as “false” and “outrageous.”
The ambassador then tried to counter the magazine’s first-hand evidence by stating unconvincingly that “the government of Venezuela has ratified the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism…and has signed multiple UN conventions on terrorism.” Yet, the signature of this anti-democratic leftist demagogue on any international treaty hadly confirms his peaceful and lawful intent.
An indignant Chavez also told foreign reporters "I challenge the staff of US News and World Report or its owners to come here and look for one single shred of evidence, to show the world one single shred of proof." Chavez added that, "It is a strategy, to launch an offensive by concocting anything -- an assassination, a coup, an invasion." As a diversion from his terror links, Chavez has begun claiming loudly, and without any substantiation, that the CIA is trying kill him.
Much of the problem with our reaction to Chavez began with former US Ambassador to Venezuela, John Maisto who I briefly served as a military attaché at the US embassy in Caracas. His soft approach to the leftist demagogue was clearly flawed. Early on in Chavez's administration, the U.S. ambassador downplayed the Chavez threat, stating that it was Chavez’s actions, not words that really mattered.
Other Clinton administration officials echoed that sentiment and said that we should ignore Chavez’s rhetoric. That approach became informally known as the "Maisto doctrine." Yet, Chavez's actions inexorably have matched his rhetoric.
Despite his failure to appreciate the menace of a Chavez-Castro alliance, Maisto was inexplicably picked by the Bush administration to head – until recently -- the Western Hemisphere Affairs section at the National Security Council. He is still influencing Latin America policy as US Ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Fortunately, other members of Bush’s National Security team such as Presidential Envoy to Latin America, Otto Reich and Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega do seem to understand the threat posed by the Chavez-Castro terror nexus.
Given the mischief Castro and Chavez are pursuing, Uncle Sam has his hands full dealing with the two dangers on either end of the Caribbean.
Paul Crespo is a former Marine Corps Officer and military attache at the US embassy in Caracas. An adjunct faculty member in the Political Science Departmnent at the University of Miami, he is also a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (www.DefendDemocracy.org
) in Washington, DC.