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Venezuela: Decertifying Hugo Chavez

By John Sweeney

Caracas 15.09.05 | The U.S. government could remove Venezuela this week from its annual list of countries that are “certified” as cooperating in the global war on drugs, the Financial Times reported on Sept. 14 "Prospect of drugs ‘black list’ hangs over Venezuela". If the U.S. government “decertifies” Venezuela, most U.S. foreign assistance to Venezuela would be cut off and the United States would be required to vote against loans to Venezuela by six multilateral development banks.

In practical terms, decertifying Venezuela would imply a suspension of about $500,000 in U.S. foreign assistance to Venezuela. This is like taking a peanut away from a squirrel that lives on a peanut farm in Georgia – insignificant and irrelevant. With more than $32 billion in foreign exchange reserves at the Central Bank and the average price of oil exports at more than $46 a barrel so far in 2005, suspending $500,000 of assistance to Venezuela will have no economic impact whatsoever on the Chavez government’s budget.

In terms of political impact, decertifying Venezuela now would also be insignificant and irrelevant if the alleged evidence in U.S. hands is not made public. Official sources in Washington, D.C. report that U.S. counter-narcotics agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have “mountains of evidence” confirming the direct involvement of corrupt Venezuelan National Guard personnel and Chavez government officials in the illegal narcotics trade. However, the U.S. government has declined so far to disclose publicly any of its alleged evidence that officials in the Chavez government are involved in the drug trade, supposedly because the U.S. is concerned that making this information public could harm the sources that provided the information.

This official U.S. position is very counterproductive politically for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. Seven years of fumbling ineptitude on Venezuela at the U.S. State Department involving figures like Ambassador John Maisto and Ambassador Charles Shapiro (who earned the nickname “Goofy” while in Caracas) have demolished the U.S. government’s credibility in Venezuela. Across Latin America, the political confrontation between the Chavez government and Bush administration is viewed mainly as a bilateral dispute that the U.S. government is more responsible for causing than Chavez is.

When senior U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visit third-tier countries like Paraguay and Peru to denounce the Chavez government as an enemy of regional stability and democracy, what clearer signal can there be of the profound disarray in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy towards Venezuela?

Since June, the Bush administration has tried and failed repeatedly to generate any traction regionally in its efforts to contain and isolate the Chavez government. President Bush tried personally in June to persuade the foreign ministers of the Organization of American States (OAS) that the multilateral entity should be reformed to give it teeth to monitor democratic governance in the Americas. However, Mexico and Brazil immediately dismissed Bush’s proposal as a “Gringo” intrusion in the sovereign affairs of other countries.

Senior U.S. officials like Roger Pardo-Maurer at the Defense Department, and departing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, have taken rhetorical potshots at Chavez repeatedly, charging him with interfering in the sovereign affairs of other countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, and coddling Colombian narco-terrorists. However, these U.S. officials haven’t disclosed any of the evidence on which they base these allegations. Again, the argument one hears from U.S. officials is that they don’t want to “compromise” the security of the sources of the alleged intelligence about Chavez’s regional destabilization activities.

This U.S. position is understandable, to some extent. If U.S. intelligence agencies have sources inside the Chavez government, which is very possible, it’s understandable that the U.S. government would want to keep its intelligence out of the public domain. This would be necessary to protect the lives of U.S. intelligence sources within the Bolivarian revolution, and also to avoid being accused publicly by Chavez of conducting intelligence operations against Venezuela. However, when U.S. government officials accuse Chavez of interfering in the affairs of other countries in the region, most Latin Americans including many of the region’s most educated and globally cultured opinion-makers likely perceive the pot calling the kettle black.

Moreover, in the specific case of the Bush administration vs. the Chavez government, many Latin Americans are already convinced beyond any doubt (in their own minds at least) that the U.S. government played a direct role in the violence that occurred in Venezuela on April 11-13, 2002. There is a predisposition among many Latin Americans to believe that the Bush administration did, in fact, sponsor a failed coup attempt in Venezuela. After all, the U.S. has over a century of history intruding politically and militarily in Latin America.

The problem with the Bush administration’s policy of making charges against Chavez while declining to substantiate those charges is that it reinforces the belief of many Latin Americans that the U.S. government is lying. It strengthens the hand of Chavez and his Marxist associates across the region, and weakens the credibility of individuals and groups in Venezuela that believe in democracy and freedom.

When it comes to Venezuela, the Bush administration should make its alleged evidence against Chavez public, or else the U.S. should shut up and start looking for ways to get along with Chavez – although we doubt that a rattlesnake and a mouse named Sam can co-exist peacefully. The Bush administration has been Chavez’s best friend in the battle for public opinion across Latin America. One can always count on some U.S. government official like Rumsfeld or a figure of “stature” like Pat Robertson or former President Jimmy Carter to give Chavez a helping hand when he needs it least.

If the Bush administration decertifies Venezuela without making public its alleged evidence implicating officials of the Bolivarian revolution in the global cocaine trade, Chavez will receive more free propaganda courtesy of a republican administration that has never had any legs in Latin America. In effect, the condemnation that decertification implies will be eclipsed completely by regional perceptions that the Bush administration is engaged in a witch hunt to lynch Chavez. Of course, the impact of decertification would be much different if hard evidence against the Chavez government is made public, and even more so if some officials associated with the Chavez government were to be indicted by U.S. courts on drug-related charges. However, we don’t see that happening soon.

What is the Narcotics Certification Process?

The Narcotics Certification Process, originally established by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), was modified as a result of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2002-2003, which was signed into law on September 30, 2002. The amended FAA requires the U.S. president to submit a consolidated report identifying all major illicit drug producing and drug-transit countries – which is called the Majors List - and designating those countries that have "failed demonstrably" during the previous 12 months to make substantial efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements and take the counter-narcotics measures specified in U.S. law. The amended FAA requires that 50 percent of certain kinds of assistance be withheld from all such countries, required to be identified and reported to Congress by the President by November 1 of each year, pending the President's September 15th certification determinations. If a country is not certified, most foreign assistance is cut off and the United States is required to vote against funding to the decertified country by six multilateral development banks.

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