Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a former paratroop colonel who swept the country's corrupt and tottering old regime from power in a 1999 landslide election, is increasingly viewed by Washington's drug warriors and hidebound Cold Warriors as a threat to US policy aims in northern South America and beyond.
They have good reason to be concerned. Since he assumed the presidency two years ago, Chavez has both challenged Washington's neoliberal economic orthodoxy and asserted a vision of a Latin America unified to confront the colossus of the north. He has also used Venezuela's huge oil reserves to push OPEC in a more aggressive direction, and has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at the United States by visiting such US-denominated villains as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Ghadafy. Also worrying the Bush administration is Chavez's nomination of Ali Rodriguez, his former oil minister, as secretary-general of the oil producers' organization in Vienna.
But Chavez' role in his own neighborhood is causing as much concern on Wall Street and in Foggy Bottom. Chavez has embraced Cuban leader Fidel Castro (they even played baseball together) and Venezuela is now supplying Cuba with desperately needed oil. And to the great irritation of US drug warriors, he has refused permission for US anti-drug planes based in the Dutch Antilles to over-fly Venezuelan territory. He is also a bitter and eloquent foe of Plan Colombia, which has brought violence and increasing refugee flows across the border into Venezuela.
All of the above prompted the Guardian Weekly (Great Britain) to report last week that "rumours are circulating that hawks in Washington are seeking allies in the Venezuelan military for a coup against Mr. Chavez."
Now, in a move certain to further tempt any possible coup-mongers, Chavez has appointed the well-known leftist journalist Jose Vincent Rangel as the country's first civilian defense minister. According to a detailed report in Al Giordano's Narco News Bulletin (http://www.narconews.com/rangel1.html), Rangel's first task will be to prevent the formation of paramilitary death squads by Venezuelan landowners near the Colombian border. The Venezuelan press reported last week that landowners were considering such measures "to combat the Colombian guerrilla." As Giordano emphasizes, paramilitaries thrive only where they have the support of national militaries, and Rangel's appointment will serve to check elements of the Venezuelan officer corps who may be inclined to provide cover for such armed formations.
One indication of growing US focus on Chavez comes from Strategic Forecasting, Inc., an Austin-based private intelligence-gathering group (http://www.stratfor.com/home/giu/archive/020501/). Normally staid and reliable, albeit clearly realpolitik in its perspective, Stratfor greeted Rangel's ascension with hysteria, hyperbole, and name-calling. Calling Rangel "a lifelong anti-American Marxist who admires Fidel Castro and is despised widely within the Venezuelan armed forces," the spies-for-hire complained that Venezuela was "adopting a hard line with the Colombian government on halting refugee displacements and cross-border incursions by Colombian army and paramilitary units."
Stratfor's analysis was blasted in a sizzling response the same day from Vheadlines.com, an English-language Venezuelan news provider (http://www.vheadline.com/0102/9938.htm). Vheadlines editorial writer Roy Carson debunked Stratfor's analysis in detail before concluding that Stratfor "should take off its myopic North American blinkers and view President Hugo Chavez Frias' achievements through the past two years in the light of the stark reality that faces Venezuela after more than 40 years of American-backed political and economic corruption."
"In this respect," wrote Carson, "Stratfor has been totally misguiding its readers even if, in its reporting on other events in Latin America, it has calls before they were in the mainstream North American media."
In other Narco News Bulletin news, publisher Al Giordano has issued an appeal for contributions to the crusading online publication's legal defense fund. As DRCNet reported last December (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/165.html#akingump), Narconews and Mexican newspaper publisher Mario Menendez Rodriguez have been sued for libel by well-connected Mexican banker Roberto Hernandez Ramirez, owner of Banamex. After losing three times in Mexican courts, a desperate Hernandez enlisted the help of Washington lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which has now sued Giordano and Menendez in New York City.
"They are abusing the laws and the judicial system of the United States to try and spend us out of existence... This case will have a profound impact on freedom of speech and of the press especially on the Internet... The difference between victory and defeat will be whether we can raise sufficient funds to mount a strong defense against this attack. In a United States civil lawsuit, transcripts of depositions cost $500 each. If they must be translated officially from Spanish, the cost doubles. Court translators cost $300 a day. And so much of the evidence that proves the truth of our reports is in Spanish. Their gamble is that we won't be able to pay those costs. They know we can't do it alone."
Those interested in donating to the Narco News legal defense fund can send checks made payable to "Drug War On Trial," and send them to: Drug War On Trial, c/o Attorney Thomas Lesser, Lesser, Newman, Souweine & Nasser, 39 Main Street, Northampton, MA 01060. If you would like to receive confirmation of your donation, send an e-mail to [email protected] with the amount pledged and your e-mail address. When your contribution arrives, Narco News promises to send a thank you note confirming its receipt.