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Venezuela & Cuba: Axis of Subversion

by Thomas Joscelyn | The Weekly Standard

The controversy over John Bolton's nomination is about much more than just his management style...

05/06/2005 12:00:00 AM | "Onward to victory! Fatherland or death! We will win!" - Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in near unison at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana on April 29, 2005

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are not the only ones opposed to President Bush's nominee for U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton. In his annual May Day speech earlier this month, Cuba's Fidel Castro used the occasion to rail against Bolton. Included in his typically vitriolic diatribe, Castro described Bolton as "irate" and as the "deranged author" of claims regarding Cuba's weapons of mass destruction program. The Cuban dictator warned that the Bush administration wants to showcase Mr. Bolton's "cynical mask . . . as the ideal symbol of the current U.S. Administration before the United Nations."

Castro further described the debate over Mr. Bolton's confirmation as follows:

John Bolton . . . is questioned by several of the most important intelligence services of the United States for venting his fury on some honest officials who had the decency to oppose his depraved and untenable lies. Major media outlets, and what is even more worrying for the extremist, warmongering, and genocidal mob, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are astounded by at [sic] such shocking behavior. [Foreign Bureau of Information Services translation]

That Castro would lash out against Bolton and the Bush administration should come as no surprise. Indeed, the debate over Bolton's confirmation is about much more than just his treatment of subordinates; it is part of a more substantive debate regarding U.S. national security interests, the seriousness of the threat posed by Castro's alliance with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to these interests, and the direction of American foreign policy in this hemisphere.

On one side of the debate stands Bolton and other like-minded policymakers and analysts who see Cuba's role in Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution as a direct threat to U.S. interests. This threat was aptly characterized by Bush administration official Otto Reich as an "axis of subversion." On the other side of the debate stand analysts and politicians who downplay the threat posed by the Chavez-Castro alliance and urge a softer approach to dealing with them.

Bolton is right to question the analytical tradecraft of those that would minimize the threat.

One analyst that has repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by the gathering storm south of the border is CIA analyst, Fulton Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong is at the center of most of the Democrats' claims about Bolton's "bullying," "pressuring," "abusing," or seeking the reassignment of analysts with whom he disagrees. It was Armstrong who, before being reassigned to a more clandestine position, was involved in a very public spat with Bolton and his ilk in 2003.

At a time when Cuban intelligence operations, which had successfully penetrated the upper echelons of the Pentagon, were being discovered, Mr. Armstrong was criticized by Mr. Bolton, Mr. Reich, and others for his lenient stance. The New York Times reported in January 2003 that "some administration officials" had sought Armstrong's reassignment because he had "been 'soft' on the threats posed by Cuba." The Times explained:

According to several officials, Mr. Armstrong has written skeptically about Cuba's importance as a military threat, its intention to develop offensive biological weapons and its continued inclusion on the State Department's annual list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

One of Armstrong's writings appears in an unclassified edition of the CIA's Studies in Intelligence from 2002. In a piece titled "Sorting Out 'National Interests', Ways to Make Analysis Relevant But Not Prescriptive," Armstrong sorts what politicians and policymakers debate as national interests into "four different types of priorities, only one or two of which are of genuine strategic importance."

Armstrong classifies U.S. policies towards Cuba in the third of these categories and, thus, not of "genuine strategic importance." Under his category titled "sectoral interests," Armstrong explains,

. . . Sometimes issues that do not affect the whole country become elevated to national interest status because of the power of their constituencies. While generally consistent with the national interest, these policy priorities favor one parochial position over others. Their proactive constituencies espouse approaches that their opponents claim overshadow more important issues. Should analysts accept the point of view of narrow interest groups as valid expressions of national interest, when an administration appears to endorse them?

Armstrong then goes on to explain that U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba caters to "narrow interest groups":

On Cuba, senior and mid-level policymakers have barely concealed in the past the fact that a relatively small constituency is the most intense promoter of the "pressure cooker" approach of maintaining the economic embargo, isolating Havana internationally, and promoting internal upheaval. One past Coordinator for Cuban Affairs at the State Department would answer challenges to the government's policy, in open forum, with the answer, "Cuba is first and foremost a domestic political matter." You do not have to be a cynic to see a link between Cuba policy, Florida elections, and campaign finances. Most observers judge that the chance is extremely slim that explosive change on the island--the sectoral interest--would result in stability and democracy--the national interest. But that view continues to underpin the interpretation of our national interests in Cuba.

Is Armstrong's characterization fair? Is U.S. policy towards Cuba really only determined by "sectoral" interests? Or, are there more important issues of national security at stake?

As has been widely reported in recent weeks, the threat posed by Cuba extends far beyond the Communist island's shores. The Cuban dictator has taken a keen interest in assisting his self-styled Venezuelan protégé's Bolivarian Revolution. Indeed the Chavez-Castro alliance jeopardizes U.S. economic and military interests as well as seeks to undermine U.S. allies throughout the region. The threat posed by this "axis of subversion" is most certainly a major issue of national security.

In nearly every sphere of the Bolivarian Revolution, Cuban leaders --with decades-long experience in organizing Communist revolutions throughout the Americas--play a leading role.

For starters, the Cuban and Venezuelan economies are becoming increasingly intertwined. Venezuelan petroleum, with tens of thousands of barrels of oil imported every day, is a vital crutch for the Cuban economy. Chavez even made sure that pro-Cuban revolutionaries replaced the existing leadership of the state-owned petroleum company, the PDVSA, after a massive anti-Chavez worker strike in 2003. In exchange for the oil--which it does not appear that Cuba has paid for--Castro has supplied Venezuela with tens of thousands of trained civilian and military personnel. The civilian personnel have already reorganized large swaths of the Venezuelan economy and begun massive programs of pro-Communist indoctrination.

In addition to expanding a variety of trade agreements between the two nations, the Bolivarian Revolution has taken direct aim at the United States' broader economic interests, in particular the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

In late April Castro and Chavez celebrated a red ribbon ceremony at the opening of Venezuelan energy and financial headquarters in Havana. The buildings, Castro noted, were just the first steps towards the realization of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The intent of ALBA is to form an economic coalition of radical socialist/Communist governments as a counterweight to U.S.-led free trade initiatives throughout the region.

Indeed, according to a FBIS (Foreign Bureau of Information Services) summary of the Fourth Hemispheric Gathering Against the FTAA in Havana on April 29, Chavez called on the attendees to "launch a moral, ideological, political, economic, social, and general offensive." Chavez closed his speech by adding, "The great day for our America is upon us; let us make it a reality." The same summary noted that Castro stressed "that just as the empire [the U.S.] was not able to destroy Cuba during the Special Period [Cuban Revolution], it will not be able to stop Cuba and Venezuela together with hundreds of progressive and leftist movements throughout the world."

The Venezuelan military and intelligence services have also been remodeled according to Cuban organizational standards. For example, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O'Grady cited the testimony of a former Venezuelan officer who explained Cuban involvement thusly: "It is a clear and precise expansion of the Communist revolution directed by Fidel Castro. It is the resurrection of the Cuban ideal of exporting revolution." The officer added, the "formal, traditional Venezuelan military no longer exists. The military apparatus now exists to defend the revolution."

"Exporting the revolution" means--explicitly--undermining U.S. allies and regimes less hostile to U.S. interests. Colombia, in particular, has been the target of Venezuelan-backed, Marxist narco-terrorist groups. In addition, Ecuador, Brazil, El Salvador, and other nations are all in the Bolivarian Revolution's cross-hairs in one way or another.

Perhaps most worrisome is the aid sought and received by Castro and Chavez from wannabe multipolar powers outside of the region. Russia has agreed to supply small arms in numbers that far exceed any conventional military use as well as aircraft and other armaments. Russian oil and gas companies have signed on to become major components of the Venezuelan petro-economy. China is pursuing the same strategy with regards to Venezuela's natural resources.

Even Iran has gotten into the act. High level Iranian officials have agreed to provide military and economic assistance to Venezuela and Cuba in order to assist their "joint position against the unipolar movement (U.S.)."

Are we to believe, as Armstrong and his cohorts apparently do, that none of this is a matter of "genuine strategic importance"?

Hardly. Arguments over Cuba's alleged limited development of weapons of mass destruction aside, the Cuban dictator and his Venezuelan ally are major threats to U.S. national security.

John Bolton is right to be concerned about this "axis of subversion."

Thomas Joscelyn is an economist who works on antitrust and securityissues.

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