U.S. ratchets up tensions with Venezuela

September 22, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on charges that the Bush administration is making new moves against the Chávez government.

IN A deliberate provocation, the Bush administration ratcheted up tensions with the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez this month, not only accusing top Venezuelan officials of supporting "narco-terrorism," but possibly supporting a right-wing plot to bring down the Chávez government.

Regional tensions are running high. In Bolivia, the country's right-wing oligarchy, backed by the U.S., has been trying on the offense against President Evo Morales. Attacks by armed opposition forces on Morales supporters have left dozens dead and scores injured. On September 10, the Morales government expelled the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, accusing him of supporting a right-wing rebellion.

According to the Chávez government, such efforts by the U.S. are taking place in Venezuela as well. Venezuela likewise expelled the U.S. ambassador, Patrick Duddy, saying that an American-supported coup plot against Chávez had been discovered. Two officers, retired Gen. Wilfredo Barroso and retired Major Elimides Labarca Soto, will be tried for "incitement to rebellion."

Hugo Chávez speaking at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2003
Hugo Chávez

State television ran reported intercepts of phone conversations between active-duty and retired military officers that referred to a plot to take Miraflores, the presidential palace.

This wouldn't be the first time that the U.S. government supported efforts by Venezuela's right wing to overthrow Chávez.

In 2002, Chávez was detained by military commanders carrying out a coup with the support of the Bush administration. But the coup was foiled when hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans mobilized to demand that Chávez be returned to office. The right tried again to force Chávez out with an employer lockout in the oil industry, but that plot was also pushed back.

Last week, in response to the expulsion of its ambassadors, the State Department in turn threw out both the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors from the U.S. In addition, the Treasury Department accused two high-ranking Venezuelan intelligence officials of aiding Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), "even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."

In addition, the Treasury Department also claimed that another top Venezuelan official, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who resigned as the country's interior minister last week, was the Venezuelan government's main weapons contact for the FARC, and that the FARC used proceeds from narcotics sales to buy weapons. All three men are closely connected to Chávez personally, and Rodríguez Chacín was a key figure in recent hostage negotiations with the FARC.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to officially classify the Chávez government as a "state sponsor of terrorism," because that might hinder the flow of Venezuelan oil to the U.S.--political leverage the Chávez has used to Venezuela's advantage. "If there is any aggression towards Venezuela" from Washington, Chávez said as he announced the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador, "there would be no oil for the people of the United States. Go to hell, Yankees!"

IF TRUE, the plot against Chavez would signal a new phase of hostilities between the U.S. and Venezuela.

Some of the latest tension may be explained by Venezuela's increasingly warm relations with Russia. Reportedly in response to the presence of U.S. warships in the Black Sea, two unarmed Russian Tupolev Tu-160 bombers arrived in Venezuela on September 10 to carry out military exercises. Russia and Venezuela also recently announced plans for joint war games in the Caribbean involving a nuclear cruiser.

According to Chávez, the presence of the Russian bombers is intended to send a message to the U.S. that aggression against Venezuela will not be tolerated. "It is a warning," he said. "Russia is with us...We are strategic allies. It is a message to the empire. Venezuela is no longer poor and alone."

As Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington, told the New York Times, "From the U.S. standpoint, the growing security alliance between Venezuela and Russia makes Chávez more of a problem today than was the case before the Georgia crisis erupted and the chilling of U.S.-Russia relations."

Further increasing tensions last week was Venezuela's highly publicized expulsion--at least partly shown on state television--of two members of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, after the group released a withering report detailing what it called systematic abuses by the Chávez government, including "discrimination on political grounds," "open disregard for the principle of separation of powers" and undercutting "journalists' freedom of expression, workers' freedom of association, and civil society's ability to promote human rights in Venezuela."

The Venezuela Information Office released a detailed rebuttal, noting, for example, that "Human Rights Watch deems the 2002 coup against the elected government 'the most dramatic setback' for human rights in Venezuela in the last decade, but criticizes President Chavez's own public condemnations of the unconstitutional overthrow as examples of 'political discrimination' against the opposition. On the contrary, President Chávez last year pardoned political opponents who backed a failed 2002 coup against his democratically elected government."

As James Suggett wrote on Venezuelanalysis.com, "The HRW report comes two months before Venezuela's regional and local elections...HRW has issued reports that are critical of the Chávez administration in the months leading up to crucial Venezuelan elections in the past, raising suspicion that the reports seek to sway Venezuelan voters against the president."

Further Reading

From the archives