Newsbrief: Bush Administration Using Colombia Drug War to Go After Venezuela's Chavez 1/2/04

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They didn't manage to get rid of him with the failed April coup attempt. Now, members of the Bush administration are using alleged links between the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia to press for stronger action against Chavez. These officials claim Venezuela is providing aid and comfort to rebels of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) and the smaller ELN (National Liberation Army), who are battling the government in Bogota for control of Colombia. The US intervened in Colombia as part of its "war on drugs," but that policy has morphed into the broader "war on terror," as the Bush administration last year removed any restraints limiting US involvement to the anti-drug effort.

Chavez has long been a thorn in the side of US conservatives. A former Army paratrooper who was imprisoned after leading a failed coup in 1992, Chavez was elected president in 1998 on vows to end the rule of Venezuela's famously corrupt political class and to craft policies that favored the country's poor majority. Since then, he has become a leading critic of US policy on a broad range of issues, including Plan Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Chavez currently faces a recall referendum brought by embittered members of the country's middle and upper classes with US support.

Now, reports well-connected Miami Herald columnist Juan Tamayo, Bush appointees are using questionable intelligence to bolster their case that Chavez is helping the rebels. And they are doing so as part of a campaign to oust him. The campaign has parallels with the build-up to the war against Iraq, according to Tamayo.

The clique of Bush hard-liners, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega (a former Sen. Jesse Helms staffer) and special envoy to Latin America Otto Reich (a key architect of the Reagan interventions in Central America in the 1980s) claim that Chavez's left-populist policies have at least created an atmosphere supportive of Colombian rebels and other US bogeymen and that Chavez isn't doing enough to support the US in its global "war on terror."

But despite numerous reports of Colombian rebels crossing into Venezuelan territory and back, even the hard-liners concede that there is no hard evidence Chavez approved any assistance to them. "There is no smoking gun on Chavez's personal intervention or direction on this," one US government source told Tamayo, describing his words as the consensus in Washington.

Nor, despite the whispers of the anti-Chavez hard-liners, is there any evidence that links Chavez to radical Islamists. There are reports that Cuban security advisors are working with Venezuelan military and intelligence and the country's secret police, but that is no different from the collaboration existing between US agencies and those of numerous other unelected governments. In response, the US has broken ties with the secret police, leaving it dependent on regime foes for intelligence.

One former House staffer told Tamayo such people are "the Ahmed Chalabis of Venezuela," a reference to the exiled Iraqi politician who fed US intelligence claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which, as Tamayo delicately puts it, "have so far not proven to be correct."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Chavez government urged Colombia to tighten security along their joint border after rightist paramilitaries killed seven Venezuelan National Guard troops in Venezuelan territory. "Apart from caution in Colombia's response, we would welcome more cooperation from the Colombian authorities on their part of the border," Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton told reporters. "Colombia really could do more on the frontier."

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