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Calling a State Sponsor a State Sponsor

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A growing body of evidence points to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez’s singular role in supporting terrorism and related criminality.

This month a dozen U.S. senators fired the opening salvo in what promises to be an aggressive oversight campaign to get to the bottom of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez’s support for terrorism. A May 25 letter challenges Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to explain what the administration knows about Venezuela’s support for a sprawling network of terrorist states and groups, including Iran, Hezbollah, Colombian “narcoterrorists,” Cuba, and Syria.

Rallied by John Ensign (R-Nevada) and George LeMieux (R-Florida), the senators are asking that Secretary Clinton explain what the administration knows about alleged arms shipments, high-level contacts, and financial dealings linking Venezuela to a rogue’s gallery of, well, rogues. The detailed letter signals that the senators already know more than the administration has been willing or able to substantiate about dictator Chávez’s collaboration with anti-American terror groups and hostile regimes.

Since the last years of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. diplomats have steered clear of Chávez for fear of ‘provoking’ him. Thanks to congressional oversight, we are about to confront the terrible downside of that naïve, passive policy.

“We are deeply concerned about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s growing ties to U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism,” the letter begins. Following a litany of examples of how Chávez economically bolsters terrorist regimes (including Cuba and Iran) and provides material support to terrorist groups (from Hezbollah to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the senators ask Clinton to explain why Venezuela evades designation under U.S. law as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Among Chávez’s notorious actions the senators cite:

• The provision of “sanctuary” and the “flow of guns and money”—including the provision of portable missiles, anti-tank rockets, and other weaponry—to Colombian guerrillas;
• Complicity in the illegal narcotics trade that fuels terrorism—including the burgeoning traffic from Venezuelan territory to west and north Africa;
• The “presence and activities of Hezbollah inside Venezuela,” and a November 2009 shipment of Russian weapons from a Venezuelan arms cache to that group;
• “Extensive support of the Castro regime in Cuba,” and Chávez’s reliance on Castro henchman Ramiro Valdes to repress internal opponents;
• Possible support for “Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment program” in exchange for Iran’s providing “nuclear knowhow” to Chávez;
• Venezuela’s delivery of gasoline to Iran and its help for Iran to evade international sanctions; and
• Suspicious air traffic and lax immigration controls on Caracas-Damascus-Tehran airline flights.

The Ensign-LeMieux letter was co-signed by John McCain (R-Arizona), Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts), Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky), John Cornyn (R-Texas), James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Republican Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), James Risch (R-Idaho), and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi). LeMieux’s involvement is significant because he was one of several senators who held up multiple diplomatic nominations last year over concerns regarding the administration’s policy toward Latin America.

This stepped-up congressional oversight is bound to build on the growing body of evidence pointing to Chávez’s singular role in supporting terrorism and related criminality. The Obama administration’s decision to the pull the trigger on Venezuela may hinge on whether the United States can afford to forfeit petroleum exports from that South American country.

Ironically, oil-rich Venezuela may be one of the few countries against which these anti-terror sanctions may have a decisive impact.

Anticipating the argument that Venezuela’s oil supply is too essential to the U.S. economy to risk slapping that country with the terrorist label, the senators ask the administration to explain its “contingency plan” for dealing with a “sudden and prolonged unavailability of Venezuelan oil exports to the United States.”

The reality is, although the United States will likely find new sources of oil on the international market within a few weeks, Venezuela’s economy will be crippled by the loss of oil revenue and consumer imports. Moreover, Chávez has wrecked Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and has failed to identify new importers with the special refineries required to distill the viscous heavy crude his country produces. Ironically, oil-rich Venezuela may be one of the few countries against which these anti-terror sanctions may have a decisive impact.

Since the last years of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. diplomats have steered clear of Chávez for fear of “provoking” him. Thanks to congressional oversight, we are about to confront the terrible downside of that naïve, passive policy.

Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.

FURTHER READING: Noriega, a South American specialist, last explained why “Hondurans, Not Zelaya, Will Decide Their Future.” He described South America as “Slouching to Populism,” chronicled Venezuela’s move “From Democracy to Dictatorship,” and wrote on “The Drug Fight in Mexico: Failure Is Not an Option.” He’s also said it’s “Time to Confront the Tehran-Caracas Axis” and answered “Has Obama Kept His Summit of the Americas Promises?”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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