May 8, 1999
US Asks Venezuela-Colombia Buffer
By Tony Bianchi
The Clinton administration is reaching out to Venezuela's new populist president, testing whether he will let his oil-rich nation be drawn into the front-lines of an alliance against expanding leftist guerrilla armies in Colombia.
In March, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, broached the idea of a U.S.-run military outpost on Venezuela's frontier with Colombia, according to Venezuelan officials familiar with the discussions. The proposal was raised in private meetings involving Wilhelm, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Chavezs national security advisers.
The U.S. rationale for the base would be to block the passage of Colombian guerrillas and drug smugglers into Venezuela. The sources said the United States wanted an American-run base as part of a string of outposts in countries bordering Colombia.
When that proposal was flatly rejected, the sources said, Wilhelms delegation countered with a plan for a Venezuelan base that would involve American military advisers and hi-tech U.S. equipment, including a computer center, a satellite link, radar and other electronic hardware.
While the Americans would control the technology, Venezuelan officers would have free access to the compound, the sources said. An American source said Chavez agreed to give this second option serious consideration.
If approved by Chavez, the Venezuelan base would become one of a small network of U.S. listening posts around Colombia. Venezuelan sources said similar U.S.-supported outposts are in the works in Peru and Ecuador to Colombia's south and Panama to Colombia's northwest.
Venezuela, however, has the longest common border with Colombia, stretching some 1,000 miles from mountainous terrain near the Caribbean to the jungles of the Amazon Basin. The fifth country that borders Colombia is Brazil.
The base proposal accompanied Wilhelms blunt assessment of the deteriorating situation in Colombia, according to the sources. The general argued that the Venezuelan base was needed because the Colombian army had failed to bring the insurgencies there under control. He said the Colombian conflict now was threatening to spill over into neighboring countries.
Retired Venezuelan Gen. Jose Antonio Olavarria said Wilhelm told Chavez that the Colombian army was unlikely to defeat the guerrilla forces that have been fighting for more than 40 years and now control many rural areas. Nor does the Pentagon think that a negotiated settlement between the guerrillas and Colombian President Andres Pastrana is likely.
As evidence that the guerrillas have no intention of accepting Pastrana's peace initiatives, the U.S. general cited the Colombian guerrilla role in the slaying of three American environmentalists who were on a scientific mission with the indigenous U'wa tribe in early March. Their bodies were found across the border in Venezuela.
A commando of the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia [FARC] admitted shooting the Americans for having "entered the U'wa region without authorization." FARC leaders, however, called the shooting an "error" and announced plans to try the commando for murder.
On March 17, at the end of his three-day visit, Wilhelm tempered his public remarks about the Colombian situation. In a press release, Wilhelm simply praised Venezuela's support for the peace process in Colombia. "After talks with President Chavez, I am convinced that Colombia has two friends [the United States and Venezuela] who are ready to help," the general said.
Though Chavez reportedly was giving a hard look at Wilhelms information about the Colombian threat, some of Chavezs top aides dismissed Wilhelm's alarms.
"All this about guerrilla invasions is a lot of BS invented by the Americans to establish a base in our country," complained Interior Minister Luis Miquilena, a former Venezuelan guerrilla fighter himself. "We have plenty of resources to stop them [the Colombians] from crossing the border."
But Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel sounded at least sympathetic to Wilhelm's warnings. "We have very disturbing information which leads us to believe that the Colombian armed conflict tends to get more complicated [and] we have to take the firm determination to stop the contamination, but it is practically impossible to prevent certain Colombian violent manifestations from spilling into Venezuelan territory."
To demonstrate Venezuelan resolve against that spreading violence, Chavez himself donned a military uniform and traveled to the border. His message was that Venezuelan troops would take action to seal off the frontier against incursions by the warring Colombian factions.
But Colombian authorities are clearly suspicious of Chavez. They have accused Venezuela of granting sanctuary to Colombian guerrillas, especially in the western oil state of Maracaibo which is governed by a Chavez ally. Some Colombians charge that while Chavez is hosting peace talks and paying lip service to reconciliation, he is quietly siding with the insurgents.
These gripes escalated when Chavez declared himself "neutral" in Colombia's civil war and suggested that the FARC effectively had earned "belligerent status" which would enhance its standing with world governments. In retaliation, Colombia's President Pastrana canceled a border summit with his Venezuelan counterpart.
Raising tensions even higher, Colombia's right-wing paramilitary leader, Carlos Castano, threatened to chase rebels all the way to Caracas if Chavez converts "his country into a refuge for the guerrillas."
Foreign Minister Rangel countered that Venezuela would repel any Colombian incursions "be it paramilitaries, guerrillas or the Colombian armed forces."
On April 13, in testimony before Congress, Wilhelm confirmed that he spoke with Chavez about the security situation along the Colombian border and other U.S. concerns about Venezuela's oil reserves which account for the largest share of U.S. oil imports. But Wilhelm offered few details.
"We've watched with considerable interest the emergence of the new regime there," Wilhelm told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Of course, Mr. Chavez rode into the presidency on the heels of a very, very strong popular mandate, and he's undertaken a very vigorous program of reform within Venezuela. From a security standpoint, he has made some rather significant changes in the way he is employing the armed force.
"Our concern, however, and one that I expressed to him, was that this could not help but deduct from the forces that were committed on the border with Colombia. And in times past, Venezuela has mounted a most effective campaign to isolate the problems in Colombia from its oil soil. In fact, they have about 10,000 troops disposed along the border."
While worried about any cuts in those border forces, Wilhelm praised Chavez's strategy for integrating the military more thoroughly into Venezuelan society. That project, called Bolivar 2000, has the goal of correcting "some of the deficiencies in the infrastructure in the country [and] provides agricultural assistance right down into putting soldiers into the classrooms, which is all well and good," the general said.
During the March visit, Wilhelm's endorsement of the Bolivar 2000 project caught Chavez by surprise. The president's pet project sets up 40 "attention centers" throughout the country to hear about and tend to emergency problems of the sick and the poor.
Chavez's concern for the poor has buoyed his popularity, though many wealthier Venezuelans complain that the president is ignoring broader economic problems.
The Clinton administration apparently sees Bolivar 2000 and similar programs for the downtrodden as important to prevent the spread of leftist movements that offer more radical alternatives. The initiatives also are seen as a way to block narco-traffickers from gaining a broad national following simply by providing jobs. According to well-placed sources, the U.S. government hopes that a popular Chavez can help Venezuela avoid the danger of "Colombianization."
In the 1960s, the Venezuelan governments of Betancourt and Leoni followed similar social strategies. With windfall profits from the oil bonanza, those governments handed out money and favors, successfully countering Castroite guerrillas who asked the people to risk their lives in a revolution that held no guarantees of a better life.
By contrast, in Colombia, the drug cartels can easily outbid the government for the loyalty of Colombians seeking only a more comfortable life. The Colombian guerrillas have succeeded, in part, by challenging the inequities in the social-political structures.
Despite Chavezs political popularity and other pluses, his rise has worried Washington. In 1992, as a paratroop colonel, Chavez led an aborted coup against what he considered a corrupt Venezuelan government. He also made no secret that he admired Fidel Castro and sought the Cuban leader's friendship.
Because he had tried to overthrow an elected government allied with the United States and cozied up to Castro, the State Department treated Chavez as a pariah. In 1998, signaling U.S. displeasure with Chavez, the State Department rejected his application for a visa to travel to the United States.
The reason given was his role as a revolutionary who challenged a democratically elected government. At the time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the snub as a matter of principle, not personal disapproval.
In 1998, Washington still nursed the hope that Yale-educated economist Enrique Salas Romer, a former state governor, could line up enough support from other political forces to defeat Chavez. Instead, Chavez won a landslide victory. The State Department had suffered an indirect loss.
Despite its nervousness, Washington recognized the 44-year-old Chavez as the duly elected president. In January, Chavez made a whirlwind victory tour of Europe and North America, including a White House meeting with President Clinton. Clinton invited Chavez to return for an official state visit by the end of February, after his inauguration.
But the U.S. government put the state visit on indefinite hold after Chavez made controversial statements that were seen as anti-democratic. Chavez raised eyebrows with his stubborn idea of scrapping the constitution which he claimed "aids and abets only the corrupt" and replacing it with "an original" constitution.
Some influential Venezuelans were unnerved, too, by his fondness for giving long messianic speeches on television. "All he wants is a free hand so he can establish the rules of an authoritarian if not despotic regime," claimed presidential runner-up Salas Romer.
The private sector complained that Chavez pays no attention to business concerns and goes overboard defending populist causes that make him a hero to the poor. In one case, squatters invaded private land and won the president's sympathy. He called them "poor devils who have no home nor place to cultivate a piece of land."
In an open letter to Chavez on March 27, economist Emeterio Gomez warned Chavez that as long as he failed to respect private property, no foreign investor will put money into Venezuela "no matter what other incentives you may offer."
Gomez added, "the country has come to an economic standstill and the government has yet to come forth with economic policies to work with."
Even some Chavez backers have chafed under the president's autocratic style. Jorge Olavarria, a former Chavez political adviser, resigned from a constitution-drafting committee, charging that Chavez "only wants to listen to himself." Only two aides -- Interior Minister Luis Miquilena and Defense Minister Raul Salazar -- are said to have enough courage to differ openly with Chavez.
But the vast majority of Venezuelans say they favor a president who puts them ahead of the business elite. A poll by MercAnalysis in the middle of March found that 78 percent of Venezuelans believe Chavez is on the right track. They also praised his concern for the poor.
On April 25, voters gave Chavez a an overwhelming victory in a referendum for convening a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. Although turnout was light, about 90 percent of those casting ballots approved the Chavez initiative. One of his goals is to change the constitution to allow himself to seek a second term.
In another controversial initiative, Chavez has moved against the autonomy of the giant state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA. Chavez has denounced the company as a "state within a state" and demanded that it be "subordinate" to the government, positions that make the country's business leaders -- as well as U.S. officials -- nervous.
The prospects for the Washington-Caracas relationship remains uncertain for other reasons of foreign policy, particularly Chavezs sympathy for Cubas Fidel Castro.
Foreign Minister Rangel complained that "at times there have been pressures" from U.S. officials trying to rein in Venezuela's foreign policy, especially its support for Cuba, Iran and China in United Nations votes on human rights issues.
"Venezuela doesn't allow itself to be pressured by anyone,'' Rangel told reporters.
Rangels complaint prompted a message from President Clinton to President Chavez via Venezuelan Ambassador Alfredo Toro Hardy. Clintons message was that the United States supports Chavezs public commitment to respect democracy.
But one well-placed Venezuelan source said Chavez also was receiving advice from Fidel Castro, who has known Chavez for a number of years. The source said Castros advice was to carry out the business you have to carry out with the U.S. but never get too friendly. ... To maintain a certain distance means more respect.
But some observers of the strained relations between Washington and Caracas see the current situation as only the latest chapter in a long history.
In the complicated U.S.-Venezuelan relationship, national differences are balanced against the Realpolitik U.S. need for Venezuela's oil and Venezuelas need to do business with the United States.
For decades, political tension has been a normal part of that bilateral relationship. Former diplomat Leopoldo Taylhardat noted that the two countries have survived many ups and downs since the discovery of Venezuelan oil reserves in the 1930s.
"Ours [the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship] has never involved a great romance and it is more like a marriage of convenience," Taylhardat observed. "But it is nevertheless a marriage and there are no signs that the convenience will disappear anytime soon."
Now, Washington wants Venezuela as an ally in a containment strategy against more radical political models for Latin America, particularly those represented by the powerful Colombian rebel movements.
How President Chavez responds to the proposed U.S. outpost could influence both the direction of the Washington-Caracas relationship and the political-military future of the northwest quadrant of South America.
Tony Bianchi is editor of Venezuela Online News and Venezuela Oil & Energy at www.vzlanet.com.