Although their actions have slipped largely under the radar screen due to America’s continuing duties in the War on Terror and in Iraq, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his minions have initiated an aggressively anti-American campaign in recent months that poses a direct threat to the security of the United States.
In late January, General Melvin Lopez Hidalgo, secretary of Venezuela’s National Defense Council, and Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez both commented on perceived “hostile expressions” and “plans for a U.S. attack” on Venezuela. U.S. officials have responded by denying any suggestion of an overthrow of the Chavez government. However, given the frequency and nature of the anti-American comments coming out of Caracas, should the Bush Administration be concerned? The answer is a resounding yes. The Chavez presidency poses a substantial national security threat to U.S. interests, Latin America and the Venezuelan people. During his often tumultuous tenure as president, Chavez has systematically eroded many of the freedoms gained with the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, General Marcos Perez Jimenez. He has authorized an end to the privatization of state holdings, augmented his presidential powers, weakened the judiciary and legislature, cut oil production to raise prices, and expanded the governing role of the military.
Human rights violations under the Chavez presidency have been noted by a number of international agencies, and both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have called for a more aggressive policy to curb the abuses. Likewise, a new media law purportedly designed to protect children and increase broadcaster accountability has been criticized broadly as little more than an attempt by Chavez to silence his opposition.
Opponents of Chavez’s “war against the owners of large estates”—which endorses the expropriation of so-called “idle” farmlands to correct historical inequalities—claim it is a violation of property rights guaranteed under the country’s constitution. Under the Chavez land redistribution plan, loosely configured, arbitrary government entities determine what land is considered “idle,” the crops to be grown, and livestock produced.
Early high-profile attempts by Chavez to counteract criticism through a series of populist reforms have been followed by a strategy to consolidate power, evoking visions of communist-styled oppression. As the pace of reforms has slowed, questions have been raised regarding the true purpose of Chavez’s reform agenda. Some have asked whether the reforms were orchestrated to merely distract the Venezuelan people, as Chavez seized control of the country’s democratic institutions.
In foreign affairs, Chavez’s growing ties with Iran’s Mohammad Khatami, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao of China are a reason for genuine concern. Explicit warnings by Chavez that he will not “send one more drop of oil to the U.S if it continues to try and remove him,” have intensified calls in Washington for a re-examination of the current bilateral relationship.
Under the finger of Chavez, Venezuela’s state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, Latin America’s largest oil company, has worked feverishly to increase energy cooperation with Russia, China and Iran, while reducing ties with the U.S. In fact, Venezuela is currently trying to convince the three countries to contribute to an ambitious $26 billion multi-year expansion of Venezuela’s aging oil and gas industries that will result in increased energy production.
Venezuela recently held serious discussions with Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom on oil and gas exploration, production, refining and pipeline construction. And, calling himself “an old friend of the Chinese people,” Chavez has encouraged Chinese companies to look to Venezuela to satisfy their growing energy needs, noting, “China offers the best option for breaking with 100 years of U.S. domination over its [Venezuela’s] oil industry.” To meet China’s energy needs, Venezuela has had direct talks with the Panamanian government to construct oil and gas pipeline routes to the Pacific Ocean over the Panamanian Isthmus, ultimately increasing the existing Chinese presence in the strategic Panama Canal area.
In addition, Iranian advisors have been recruited by Chavez to assist in the development of an “Asian strategy” to steer oil from the U.S. to Asia. These attempts at strengthening ties with the Islamist government in Iran have done little to endear Chavez to Washington.
In January, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s investigative arm, was assigned the task of investigating the risk of losing Venezuela’s oil imports at the request of Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “We must make sure that all contingencies are in place to mitigate the effects of a significant shortfall of Venezuelan oil production, as this could have serious consequences for our nation’s security and for U.S. consumers,” said Lugar.
Statements made by Chavez praising Fidel Castro have been extremely disquieting to Washington as well. Many experts have speculated that Castro is grooming Chavez to be his heir apparent. “Fidel [Castro] for me is a father, a companion, a master of the perfect strategy,” Chavez has stated.
Even more troubling, Miami’s El Nuevo Herald reported in January that Cuban judicial and security forces have arrived in Caracas wielding unusual inter-country police powers which allow them to abduct Venezuelan and Cuban citizens and transport them to Cuba without an extradition hearing. “Cubans are running Venezuelan intelligence services, indoctrinating and training the military, and now this. Whoever heard of one country allowing another country to have police powers?” said Otto Reich, the former ambassador to Venezuela under President Ronald Reagan.
As a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” and darling of the anti-imperialist movement, Chavez’s claim that he is an innocent victim of U.S. aggression and unilateralism may resonate in some global circles, but in reality, it is simply an ill-timed and unfortunate attempt to gain domestic significance. By portraying the U.S. as an enemy of the Venezuelan people, Chavez is playing the centuries-old “victim” game used by past dictators to maintain power. His desperate cries concerning the “bully to the north” and an “imminent U.S. invasion” point to a government in turmoil.
The real reason for Chavez’s desperation lies not in the encroachment of Venezuelan sovereignty by the U.S.; rather, it rests entirely upon a multitude of unfulfilled promises Chavez has made to the Venezuelan people over the course of the past six years and a growing impatience with his brash style of governing. Latin American leaders such as Columbia’s President, Alvaro Uribe, a strong U.S. ally in the war on terror, are no longer willing to dismiss his inflammatory comments as instances of trivial mockery.
In April 2004, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) stated, “I worry that we may eventually reach the point where we have to treat this Venezuelan government as an unfriendly government that is hostile to U.S. interests.” That point may have already been reached. Chavez’s outspoken opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his involvement in the recent Rodrigo Granda terrorist affair further demonstrates a dubious commitment to democracy and individual freedoms.
The time has come for the U.S. to put Chavez on notice that any future talk of an oil embargo or prejudicial treatment toward U.S. energy companies operating in Venezuela will be considered a direct threat to U.S. national security. Chavez must be made keenly aware that historically aggressive, non-hemispheric foreign powers such as China, Iran and Russia will not be permitted to influence U.S. energy policy and commitments to democracy.
Absent measurable progress in the areas of energy transport and democratic reforms, a containment policy specifically tailored to minimize Chavez’s influence will need to be adopted focusing on an enhanced military presence in the region; the possible imposition of economic sanctions and embargos, and increased assistance to anti-Chavez forces inside Venezuela and in neighboring countries.
In his inauguration speech, President Bush stated, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” With so much at stake, is Hugo Chavez a man the U.S. government can trust to ensure liberty in Venezuela?