Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told reporters in Caracas Sunday he was annulling a bilateral agreement between his government and the DEA that allows the US anti-drug agency to operate in Venezuela. Those comments were but the latest and most definitive statement of an emerging Venezuelan government position that has been hardening over the past few weeks. The US government has responded with not-so-veiled threats to "decertify" Venezuela as not cooperating in US drug war goals when the State Department undertakes its annual certification review next month.
Neither the US Embassy in Caracas nor the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington responded to Drug War Chronicle requests for comment except to point to statements issued by the respective embassies this week. The US Embassy in Caracas did not address the DEA spying charges, limiting its comments to saying the rupture was "unfortunate" and served only drug traffickers and warning of the impact the move could have on certification. The embassy statement noted that President Bush must notify Congress of certification decisions on September 15. "The state of cooperation between US and Venezuelan law enforcement agencies will certainly be factored into that decision," the statement said. "As we have repeatedly stated in the past, the only people who win from a lack of cooperation between our governments on this issue are the drug traffickers and their allies."
Situated next door to Colombia, which is responsible for nearly 90% of the world's cocaine, Venezuela is an obvious and tempting target for drug traffickers seeking to export their products to North America and Europe. Some estimates say up to 30% of Colombian cocaine is now being transshipped through Venezuela. Venezuelan anti-drug authorities have cooperated in the past with their US counterparts despite increasingly tense relations with the US, and said they will continue to cooperate with other foreign anti-drug fighters, including the British, Dutch, and Spanish.
Relations between the Bush administration and the left-leaning Venezuelan leader have grown increasingly strained, particularly since the failed 2002 coup against Chavez, where at the very least, and in violation of its hemispheric obligations, the Bush administration failed to support a democratically-elected leader -- Hugo Chavez -- against anti-democratic plotters. Chavez and his supporters accuse the US of direct involvement in the coup attempt.
Bush administration policymakers view Chavez as a threat to US interests on a number of fronts. As head of a major oil-producing country and OPEC member, Chavez has made overtures to a number of other oil-producing states that make the Bush administration nervous, including Iran and Libya. He is also in negotiations with the Chinese government over energy purchases, something administration hawks with long-term vision find very disturbing. And Chavez is spearheading an effort to weaken US economic influence in South America by championing Mercosur, the continental free trade zone, over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas favored by Washington.
The Bush administration also loathes Chavez for his warm embrace of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his increasingly bold pronouncements on the desirability of socialism. With left-leaning leaders already governing Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and well-positioned to win upcoming presidential elections in Bolivia and Mexico, Washington views Chavez as the potential head of a counter-hegemonic leftist bloc in the hemisphere. In the Bush administration's view, that makes Chavez a "destabilizing" force in the region, as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice put it last week.
Indeed, Washington has repeatedly accused Chavez of aiding Colombia's left-wing guerrillas the FARC, either by allowing them sanctuary in Venezuelan territory or by providing them with weapons. More recently, the Bush administration has accused Chavez of supplying funds to "anti-democratic forces" in Bolivia, presumably referring to coca grower leader and Movement Toward Socialism party head Evo Morales, a democratically-elected Bolivian congressman who appears poised to take the presidency in elections set for December.
The inflammatory rhetoric is not just coming from Washington. Chavez, for his part, rails repeatedly against the US and its policies. He was at it again Monday as he addressed a global youth conference in Caracas. In a speech perfectly designed to drive American conservatives crazy, he told the students "socialism is the only path" and their collective goal must be "to save a world threatened by the voracity of US imperialism." Chavez also warned the US against attempting to invade Venezuela, something the Bush administration says it has no intention of doing. "If someday they get the crazy idea of coming to invade us, we'll make them bite the dust defending the freedom of our land," he said.
In is within this context of increasing hostility between Washington and Caracas that the confrontation over the DEA has occurred. It began with grumbling earlier this year from DEA agents that they were not receiving the same levels of cooperation from the Venezuelan National Guard and Police Detective Branch (CICPC) Anti-Drugs Division, that country's two leading anti-drug agencies. At the same time, leaks about corruption in the Venezuelan anti-drug effort began appearing in the local and Miami press.
In May, Venezuela moved against a key DEA ally, dismissing Judge Mildred Camero from her post as president of the National Commission Against the Illegal Use of Drugs (CONCACUID) and replacing her with a State Political and Security (DISIP) police officer, Luis Correa, the Venezuelan news and analysis site Vheadlines.com reported. According to that source, while there are sufficient grounds to complain about DEA overstepping in Venezuela, the primary motive for the crackdown is suspicions that the DEA is acting not to stop drug trafficking but as part of a US foreign policy establishment out to overthrow Chavez.
Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon told Vheadlines.com the DEA was operating illegally from the CONACUID offices, which was out of bounds to Venezuelan drug agents. "The war on narco-trafficking will be conducted from Venezuelan territory under parameters defined by the Venezuelan government, and that means no international organ is above the law." As for going behind the back of Venezuelan authorities, "That's over. If the DEA wants to work with the Venezuelan government, it should do so under defined parameters or at least on the basis of a bilateral agreement that respects the principle of reciprocity."
"Clearly, this is more about tensions in the US-Venezuela relationship than about specifics on drugs or the DEA" said John Walsh, senior drug policy and Andean affairs analyst for the progressive Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "There has been a perceptible deterioration in relations and lots of verbal sparring, especially since Bush won reelection. On Chavez' part, since he survived the referendum last year, he feels like he is in a very strong position right now as spokesman for the hemispheric left and thorn in Bush's side. He has strong domestic support, and oil prices are high," he told DRCNet.
"You can't discuss the drug issue between the two countries without discussing the larger question of US policy toward Venezuela," agreed Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, another progressive Washington think-tank. "It is openly hostile," Birns told DRCNet, pointing to concerns over China, Mercosur, and the development of alternatives to Washington's policy in the region. "Under Chavez, Venezuela has become a major voice for South America, particularly though the de facto South Atlantic alliance of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay, with an assist from Cuba. This sort of 'third way' movement is spreading through the hemisphere, and Washington sees this as increasingly antithetical to US national interests."
Chavez is deeply concerned the US is out to get him, said Walsh. "Ever since the coup attempt, Chavez has had a not unjustifiable paranoia that the US is scheming and plotting to bring him down. He talks about this regularly, he alleges the US is plotting to assassinate him or invade the country, and in the present case, he is alleging that the DEA was basically spying on his government. This is part of the continuing reverberations from the coup attempt and the US failure to promptly denounce it." But Chavez is a player, too, Walsh noted. "I think Chavez is being deliberately provocative," said Walsh. "He is the one defying the US in a drug war a lot of Latin Americans think is overly punitive and unsuccessful in its basic goals of stopping supply and demand. For Chavez, this is one more area of fertile ground for pointing out the shortcomings of the US. There are a lot of people in Latin America who are already lukewarm toward the US at best, and they will say Chavez has a point," Walsh said.
For Birns, the certification issue is more about politics than drugs. "The drug issue has always been terrible policy for the US in Latin America, and Washington has used decertification not as a neutral measure but as an archly political weapon. When Mexico was decertified, the penalties were waived because of NAFTA, even though Mexico's performance was far worse then than Colombia's. But we condemned Colombia because we didn't like President Samper," he said. "When Washington has to choose between ideology and actually taking effective action to stop the drug trade, ideology comes first. I see this talk of decertification as not so much at the behest of the DEA, but as a politicized decision by the Bush administration to turn the screws on Chavez."
"The DEA claimed until very recently that it had a good working relationship with Venezuela, and Venezuelan officials agreed," said Walsh. "But for Chavez to accuse the DEA of acting as a spy outfit doesn't exactly come out of the blue. This is not the first time there has been an escalation to the point of saying US agents should be removed. There have been similar spats over the US military group in the embassy."
COHA's Birns doubted the DEA really was spying on Venezuela. "Venezuela is riddled with CIA operatives, it is a country where the opposition is totally alienated and willing to deal with anyone to get rid of Chavez. There is no shortage of opportunities for the US to introduce intelligence agents in Venezuela, so why would it use the DEA? There is no question that Washington is up to skullduggery there, but I do question whether the DEA is involved."
"The impact of decertification is clearly political, and if it happens, it would have to be seen as part of the broader case the Bush administration is trying to make that Chavez is not a good neighbor, that he is a threat to stability in the region. They have tried to do it on human rights, and decertifying or even using strong language against Venezuela would serve the same goal," said WOLA's Walsh. "The Bush administration's basic political inclinations are to go after Chavez, and there will be nothing holding them back from decertification if they can point to a gigantic rupture in cooperation in a critical cocaine transit county."
And so it goes in the dance macabre between Caracas and Washington. Look for this battle to heat up next month as the State Department wrestles with a decision on whether to decertify Venezuela or not.