Venezuela, Terror Sanctuary?

During a recent four hour speech before the Venezuelan National Assembly that country’s leader,  Hugo Chavez, said that part of his morning routine includes chewing on coca leaves and “recommended” the use of the habit-forming paste that he receives from Bolivia’s leader, Evo Morales.  As with most things in the Bolivarian Revolution, laws are relative and can be obeyed or disobeyed at will.  Besides the fact that it is a dangerous and controlled substance that is illegal in most countries, it further calls into serious question the state of mind of a head of state who now openly admits to breaking Venezuela’s Criminal Code on a daily basis.  Such an admission before the putative law-making body of the country, poetic.

Law-breaking is nothing new for the Bolivarian Revolution; it has been its modus operandi. It is up to the Venezuelan people what to do with their intoxicated leader, since there is not much the U.S. can do to address such internal matters.  Yet, in other areas the U.S. can and should take a closer look and respond accordingly.  One such issue surrounds Venezuela’s relationship with the Colombian terrorist group, the FARC-Peoples Army.   This Marxist group has been around just about as long as the Communist Party of Cuba and, allegedly,  controls a “neutral” zone in southern Colombia.  It is the largest and best-organized of the three Foreign Terrorist Organizations that Colombian democracy must contend with on a daily basis.

The FARC holds hundreds of hostages, including Americans, as well as uses illegal drugs as a revenue generator to fund and run a narco-state inside of Colombian territory.  According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, the FARC has “continued tactical-level terrorist and narcotrafficking activities, despite the ongoing military campaign against it, and launched several bombings against military targets in urban areas, including Bogotá. The FARC also targeted numerous rural outposts, infrastructure targets, and political adversaries in dozens of attacks, and continued kidnappings across Colombia.” 

The FARC gets a lot of support for its work from the region and around the world; however, its most important resource has been from State Sponsor of Terror Cuba and, during the past few years, from the Cuban Communist Party’s satellite in South America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  Since the FARC has successfully established itself in the Andean region, it has been exploring international recognition for several years as a next step in its process.  It can meet foreign leaders in the FARC zone, as the recent hostage release dramatically showed the world and, with the support of Cuba, Venezuela, and other countries, seek to turn international attention in its favor and against Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe.  From the U.S. perspective, a terrorist group with this much projection capability is operating in an Andean haven, a sanctuary.

It is the policy of the U.S. to identify foreign countries that are being used as terrorist sanctuaries as well as supporting terrorists in other ways.   Recent comments by Chavez should compel policy makers to review if Venezuela has become a terror sanctuary for the FARC under U.S. laws and make such a determination in the annual country reports on terrorism that the Secretary of State delivers to the Congress every spring.   Such a review, that may be underway already, would be a logical next step that builds upon 2007 findings by the Department of Homeland Security that “Venezuela has virtually ceased its cooperation in the global war on terror [and] tolerated terrorists in its territory,” in addition to other findings by our government that most likely refer to the FARC, but could also reach other forms of terrorist groups not indigenous to the region.

Under U.S. law, a terrorist sanctuary is an area in the territory of the country used by a terrorist or terrorist organization to carry out terrorist activities, including training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment; or as a transit point and the government of which expressly consents to, or with knowledge, allows, tolerates, or disregards such use of its territory.  If and when such a determination were made, the Secretary would be required to provide a “strategy for addressing, and where possible eliminating, terrorist sanctuaries.”  Such efforts would include, among other things, working “with other countries in bilateral and multilateral fora to address or eliminate terrorist sanctuaries and disrupt or eliminate the security provided to terrorists by such sanctuaries.”

The FARC has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 2001 and just two weeks ago the Department of the Treasury listed one entity and six individuals that were providing financial support to the terrorist group.   DHS appears to have all but conceded the point that Venezuela is a terrorist haven.  Also, before a Congressional Committee the Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department said that the FARC and other terrorist groups “continue to use Venezuelan territory for safe haven and transit of drugs, people and arms.”  The Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy John Walters, told Reuters during a visit to Colombia last week that “[a]t a point where neglect becomes complicity, it is an active policy not to engage and deal with this problem. I think it is about time to face up to the fact that President Chavez is becoming a major facilitator of the transit of cocaine to Europe and other parts of this hemisphere.” 

Then there is Chavez and his officials.  Immediately before two out of more than 700 hostages, including three American citizens, were released by the FARC a few weeks ago, the Venezuelan Minister of the Interior said that “President Chavez wishes to let you [the FARC] know that we pay great attention to your struggle. Keep up your fighting spirit and your force. You can count on us”.  A few days earlier before those remarks, in that same speech where Chavez admits he chews on coca, Chavez said the FARC are not “terrorists but armies with a legitimate political posture. We respect them … I ask the European Union that their label of terrorists be erased.” 

In addition to terrorist groups or individuals in the region, there are threats from outside of the Western Hemisphere that care cause for concern and call for Venezuela being designated a terrorist haven.  Venezuela maintains robust relationships with at least three countries deemed state sponsors of terror by the U.S.:  Cuba, Iran, and Syria Cuba and Venezuela should be treated as equals.  Each country poses unique policy challenge to the U.S., but working together as they do poses threats to regional stability that should not be taken lightly by the U.S. or our regional partners.  Iran’s interest in the hemisphere since 2001 has increased exponentially ever since the September 11 attacks and Cuba and Venezuela have been more than willing to offer it a willing hand.  Besides terrorism, these countries keep the Russians, Chinese, and other foreign competing interests with plenty of diplomatic, economic, and political support that impact throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. has many options at its disposal to deal with this problem, but we must first clearly make the case against Venezuela if we are to secure any regional support for our efforts.   While the multilateral approach is an option, we may need to engage this matter in a bilateral matter and on a case-by-case basis so that the FARC, Cuba, and Venezuela are not granted opportunities to create the public relations opportunities that they so desperately need.

In October 2006, the U.S. cut off all military sales to Venezuela.  Venezuela has demonstrated a callous disregard for the lives of innocent civilians held as hostages by the FARC by using the subject as a political weapon as an attempt to legitimize the FARC, even going as far as requesting that it be removed from terrorism designations by the European Union.  It continues to expressly allow the FARC and other terrorist groups to use Venezuelan territory for training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment, and a transit point for illegal activities. 

Venezuela is no better than Cuba in this regard and, some would argue because of its easy access to petroleum money is more of an immediate threat in the region.  The U.S. should consider designating Venezuela a terrorist haven and impose the appropriate sanctions.  For Colombia, such a move could further bolster claims that the FARC is on the run and looking for aid and comfort just across the border.

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