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Hugo Chavez, George Friedman and Stratfor: Actually, there IS a problem, but some folks are clueless

By John Sweeney

23.02.06 | George Friedman, owner and publisher of Stratfor (which markets itself as a “shadow CIA” that’s much better than the real CIA), has written a “geopolitical intelligence brief” entitled “The United States and the ‘Problem’ of Venezuela.” In that analysis, published under Friedman’s byline, but more likely written by one of his editorial assistants, concludes that the confrontation between President Hugo Chavez and the U.S. government is irrelevant because Venezuelan oil exports continue flowing to the U.S., and these oil exports won’t be suspended because Chavez needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Venezuela. “Sometimes,” Friedman concludes, “there really isn’t a problem.”

Normally I would not respond to Friedman’s “analysis” publicly, because I worked five years with Stratfor (until Sept. 2, 2005) as the senior (and practically only) analyst responsible for the firm’s Latin America geopolitical analyses. However, after receiving over 150 e-mails from colleagues across the Americas in the past 12 hours requesting my reaction to his analysis, I asked to post this response.

Friedman writes that Chavez “sought the presidency without any clear ideology other than hostility to the existing regime.” This is inaccurate. Chavez had a Marxist ideological blueprint, for ruling Venezuela dictatorially, long before he participated in the failed 1992 coup. Together with dozens of other civilians and military personnel, who embraced the Bolivarian revolution’s populist and Marxist ideology, Chavez spent at least 15 years openly conspiring to topple Venezuela’s democratic government in a coup and install a Cuban-style militarist regime in Venezuela. This can be shown factually with open-source intelligence available to anyone who cares to do the research.

Moreover, Chavez did not create this blueprint. Although he claims to be the creator of the Bolivarian Revolution, the intellectual and ideological architects of the Marxist infiltration of Venezuela’s national armed forces (FAN) in the late 1960s were figures like Douglas Bravo and Teodoro Petkoff, among others. Another key figure was former Army Lt Colonel Francisco Arias Cardenas, who was regarded by his fellow conspirators as the chief ideological and tactical leader of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement, that subsequently was hijacked by Chavez on Feb. 4, 1992 after he negotiated his surrender without ever firing a shot, in exchange for being allowed to make a nationally televised speech in which he betrayed the coup’s other four leaders.

Friedman writes, “Chavez was able to win the presidency because he promised the Venezuelan masses a bigger cut of the oil revenues than they had seen before. (…) From his fairly simple populist position, then, he proceeded to move against the technical apparatus of PDVSA and against the foreign oil companies, most of which opposed him and threatened to undermine his plans.”

In fact, Chavez did not make any real overt moves against PDVSA until January 2002, three years after he became president. During his first three years in power, Chavez concentrated on two issues mainly. At home, Chavez focused all of his efforts on drafting a new constitution, and holding new elections to choose a unicameral National Assembly. He also focused on infiltrating the FAN politically, toppling the traditional organized labor movement (CTV), and implementing nearly 50 laws that locked the private business sector into a State-controlled collectivist economic model. Outside Venezuela, Chavez focused on strengthening OPEC politically. Friedman’s assertion that Chavez got “lucky” thanks to rising oil prices completely ignores the successful lobbying efforts by Chavez in 1999-2000 to persuade Saudi Arabia and Mexico to work jointly to drive up prices by reinstating OPEC and non-OPEC production controls.

It also should be noted that Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Norway and other producers were already attempting in 1998 to establish some form of joint cooperation to strengthen oil prices. However, when Chavez became president he personally embarked on a global tour, to repair alliances within OPEC, that created the impetus to re-establish production controls and start pushing prices up again. Many other factors have come into play in the years since then, but Chavez got the ball rolling, and “luck” had nothing to do with it.

Friedman’s mention of the failed coup in 1992 giving Chavez an excuse to go ballistic against the U.S. government also deserves comment. Chavez showed his anti-American stripes in early 1999 soon after he assumed the presidency, and after the April 2002 event he turned up the heat because it helped him to cover up the fact that he actually instigated the alleged coup himself through (among others) associates of then-Defense Minister (and current Vice President) Jose Vicente Rangel. Specifically, we are referring to Vinicio and Parsifal de Sola.

After the failed revolt against Chavez in 2002, Friedman never showed any interest in seeking a better understanding of what had happened. In his view, it was a coup and that’s all there was to it. In fact, there were several forces at work in that revolt. One of the instigators was Chavez, who used double agents to fabricate a coup against his own government in an effort to entrap his foes. However, there were also other groups involved in various plots. One group consisted of the FAN officers who appeared in a video taped in a Chacao apartment owned by Reinaldo Cervini and broadcast via CNN. This group never led any troops. Another group consisted entirely of officers and civilians that had been fiercely loyal to Chavez until the president dumped them, and then they turned against him. These two groups had nothing whatsoever in common with the legitimate democratic political opposition. And there was Pedro Carmona’s group, whose shadowy backers belong to the inner circles around former President Rafael Caldera. It is therefore inaccurate in the extreme to lump all of these groups under the rubric “opposition.”

However, Friedman had no interest in pursuing this any deeper because, in his words to the Stratfor analyst group in Austin back in April 2002, "Venezuelans were assholes anyway and deserved Chavez as president." Why does Friedman dislike Venezuela so much? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that at one point before Chavez was elected president, Friedman was involved in the losing end of a failed business venture with SAIC and Jantesa.

Friedman writes, “It would be a huge surprise to us if it turned out that the CIA was utterly unaware of the coup plans, but we would also be moderately surprised if the CIA planned events as Chavez charged. Even on its worst day, the CIA couldn't be that incompetent.” In fact, the CIA was aware in advance that several conspiracies to launch a coup were under way. That is a matter of public record in Washington, D.C. As for the CIA’s not being that incompetent (assuming they were involved in the failed coup), the fact is that the CIA (and FBI) completely missed the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda, and also were wrong about the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For the record, Stratfor also missed the 9/11 attacks and couldn’t say with any certainty if there were or weren’t any WMD in Iraq.

Friedman writes, “What the coup did was flesh out Chavez's ideology a bit. He was for the poor and against the United States.” This is also demonstrably inaccurate. Chavez has always been “for the poor and against the United States,” going all the way back to the early 1990s, as can be shown with open-source intelligence sources. Moreover, Venezuela’s oil industry did not suffer from lack of investment and technical expertise until Chavez became president in 1999. Before that, PDVSA was implementing a major global expansion strategy in which foreign oil companies invested over $25 billion in less than a decade. PDVSA did not start to implode structurally as a result of political purges until March 2003, more than four years after Chavez became president in 1999.

Friedman writes, “All of this led him into an alliance with Cuba. When you're anti-U.S. in Latin America, Havana welcomes you with open arms. (…) It could be argued that without Chavez, the Castro regime might have collapsed once faced with soaring oil prices.” This too is inaccurate. The alliance between Chavez and Castro dates officially from 1994, immediately after he was pardoned and released from the Yare prison. The first thing Chavez did after leaving jail was to visit Havana thanks to the urgings of old Marxist guerrillas like Ali Rodriguez Araque, Jose Vicente Rangel and others. Castro has been Chavez’s primary strategic and tactical political adviser for over 11 years now. Moreover, without cheap Venezuelan oil Castro’s Cuba likely would have suffered major hardships, but the Cuban regime would not have collapsed – not while Fidel lives anyway. Friedman’s claim that without Venezuelan oil the Cuban regime would fall reflects his lack of knowledge about Latin American issues in general. If the U.S. embargo against Cuba hasn’t toppled Castro in more than 40 years, lack of oil wouldn’t succeed in bringing down Castro either. However, since there aren’t any radical Arabs hiding behind banana trees in Latin America, the region isn’t of any interest to Friedman.

Friedman writes, “From the American point of view, Chavez -- like Castro -- is simply a nuisance, not a serious threat.” In fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently told U.S. legislators that Chavez is the greatest threat today to economic and democratic stability in Latin America. Moreover, the recently published 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review explicitly mentions Venezuela as a threat to regional stability, but does not mention Cuba or any other Latin American country. However, perhaps Friedman (like televangelist Pat “God speaks directly to me” Robertson) has sources higher than Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Friedman writes, “…apart from the occasional Arab -- and some phantoms generated by opposition groups, knowing that that is the only way to get the United States into the game -- there are no signs that Islamist terrorists would be able to use Venezuela in a significant way. Chavez would be crazy to take that risk -- and Castro, who depends on Chavez's cheap oil, is not about to let Chavez take crazy risks, even if he were so inclined.”

In fact, the Chavez and Castro governments have jointly developed international networks to move billions of dollars of Venezuelan oil revenues into offshore bank accounts. Chavez and Castro are also aligned closely with Iran, Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and, most recently, Hamas in the Palestinian territories. The Chavez government not only has purchased weapons from Russia, but has also been in secret talks with Pyongyang to buy conventional infantry weapons.

Three weeks ago Chavez also announced plans to buy up to 900,000 more assault rifles to arm his military reserve. He may be blowing hot air, but the 100,000 rifles he already bought (when they arrive) will give Venezuela’s FAN an arsenal of over 200,000 assault rifles, which is more than enough to destabilize other countries in the region if Chavez decides to pick fights with his neighbors in Colombia, for example.

Last year Caracas and Tehran signed bilateral agreements worth about $8 billion of investment. They also signed a secret bilateral protocol to support each other in developing nuclear weapons capability. Iranian and Cuban geologists are already prospecting in Bolivar state’s jungles for uranium deposits.

There are now over 40,000 Cuban nationals in Venezuela on official missions. However, our sources in the Chavez government and FAN report that DPRK has deployed between 100 and 200 elite Special Operations Forces troops to Venezuela to train elite FAN troops in asymmetrical insurgent warfare tactics and strategies that now form the core of Venezuela’s new Bolivarian National Security Doctrine. Also, Iran and Syria have deployed more personnel into Venezuela, many allegedly as immigrants. Arab immigration to Venezuela from the Palestinian territories and southern Lebanon is also growing rapidly. Radical Islamic influence in Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry is so pronounced that the two most radical Imams in Venezuela are routinely asked by the Foreign Ministry to review and approve all Venezuelan diplomats posted to embassies in the Middle East.

Friedman writes that the only thing about Venezuela that matters to the U.S. is oil. However, Venezuela’s oil exports to the U.S. dropped by 300,000 b/d last year, the first year after Chavez announced he will break Venezuela’s oil supply dependency on the U.S. Anyway, it’s no longer just about oil. Our sources in Caracas confirmed recently that Chavez is quietly seeking through his Iranian and DPRK contacts to acquire one or two nuclear warheads and the systems to deliver those warheads to the U.S. mainland. With an estimated $30 billion deposited in secret offshore bank accounts, Chavez has enough cash to buy such weapons secretly. His loud support for the Iranian and DPRK nuclear programs seeks to hasten the day when Chavez (and Castro) may secure the one or two WMD they need to have a credible nuclear deterrent against the U.S. They may never succeed in acquiring such weapons, but the likelihood they may fail won’t deter them from seeking them.

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