U.S.-Venezuela Links Teeter on the Brink, Dragging a Prudent Foreign Policy With It

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•Washington should take advantage of the temporary détente between Colombia and Venezuela and relate to Caracas constructively.
•Would-be U.S. Ambassador designate Palmer fails at behaving diplomatically.
•You do not insult your prospective host and then expect to be warmly greeted in the house.
•While Chavez sometimes acts boorishly, he has the right to challenge U.S. charges against him when they are often driven by propaganda rather than by hard facts.
•U.S. Latin American Policy under Obama continues to be vintage Bush.

Since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Caracas has maintained a testy relationship with the United States, a nation which Chávez views as the primary threat to his dream of reproducing the Bolivarian Revolution. Although the U.S. and Venezuela experienced a very brief honeymoon once President Barack Obama assumed office, the two countries’ relationship has quickly begun to sour. Responding in kind, Chávez has vamped up his anti-imperialist rhetoric in recent months, repeatedly taking stabs at the U.S. government for meddling in Latin American affairs.

In addition to chiding the Obama administration for its claims that the Venezuelan government may be supporting terrorist organizations and for the U.S. increased military presence in Latin America, Chávez has slammed Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to Venezuela. Larry Palmer, an experienced if somewhat back-slapping, Foreign Service officer who served as Ambassador to Honduras from 2002-2005, drew heavy criticism from Chávez and other Venezuelan officials because of a series of scathing remarks he had made regarding the Caracas regime during a fast-pace hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 27. In a question and answer session with Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), Palmer questioned the morale of Venezuela’s military, warned of the nation’s increased cooperation with Cuba, and further hinted at the government’s compliance with leftist rebel groups like the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as its counterpart, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

In response to what he refers to as American imperialism, Chávez has publicly hinted at a U.S.-backed military conflict in the region, threatened to cut off all Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S., and vowed to reject Palmer if Secretary of State Hilary insists on sending him to Caracas. Together with Chávez’ recent diplomatic row with Washington’s biggest South American ally over the last eight years (recently-departed Colombian President Álvaro Uribe) his harsh words have created a stormy environment in a region that had recently drawn positive interest from the U.S. State Department. Although many see the inflammatory language coming from Caracas as an attempt by Chávez to distract Venezuelan voters from the nation’s reeling economy ahead of September’s legislative elections, he has nonetheless stirred up tensions with the Bolivarian Republic’s biggest ideological foe.

State Department Report: Venezuela a Potential Refuge for Terrorists

On August 5, just two weeks after Colombian officials presented the Organization of American States (OAS) with data that allegedly confirmed Venezuela’s cooperation with Colombian terrorist groups, the State Department released its annual report on global terrorist activities. The document, which measures the scope of terrorism on a country-by-country basis and labels nations according to their support for terrorists, notes that FARC and ELN remain the two most formidable terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere today, and that its fighters “reportedly regularly crossed into Venezuelan territory.” It also tags Cuba as a state sponsor of terror, an important distinction for Venezuela because of its close military and economic ties to Havana.

In its section on Venezuela, the report expresses a number of grave concerns regarding the nation’s lack of compliance with U.S. counterterrorism initiatives. For instance, it suggests that Caracas has defied efforts by Washington to thwart terrorism in the region for presumably ideological purposes, mentioning that “since Colombia and the United States signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement, Venezuela’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism has been reduced to an absolute minimum.” While the document does not go on to explicitly state that Venezuela harbors members of FARC or ELN, it implies that the groups enjoy a communal relationship: “Venezuela [has] provided some logistical, financial, and lethal aid to the FARC.” Moreover, the report points out that arms purchased by Venezuela have wound up in the hands of both groups and that several high-ranking Chávez military appointees have allegedly provided assistance to narco-traffickers linked to the FARC.

Because the State Department report almost entirely mirrors information put forth by the outgoing Uribe administration during the July 22 extraordinary OAS session regarding Venezuela’s presumed support for guerrilla forces, Chávez has used the opportunity to take jabs at the U.S. while condemning the objective merits of the accusations against his nation. He was keen to shed light upon the U.S.’ security links to Colombia during his national address on July 24, a day which commemorated Simón Bolívar’s 227th birthday. Citing a secret letter sent from an alleged comrade in the U.S., Chávez noted that “the international community’s preparation phase [for a military assault], with the help of Colombia, is in full execution…things appear to be moving forward.” Chávez then went so far as to threaten to cut off all oil exports to the U.S. in the event of an attack against Venezuela. After severing diplomatic ties with Colombia over the Uribe administration’s claims days earlier, Chávez emphatically declared in a July 25th speech that “if there was any armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombian territory or from anywhere else, promoted by the Yankee empire, we would suspend oil shipments to the United States even if we have to eat stones here.”

Surprisingly, tensions have eased in the days since Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, was sworn in as president of Colombia, as both he and Chávez have taken significant steps to normalize relations between Caracas and Bogotá. After an August 10 meeting between the heads of state in the Colombian city of Santa Marta, the two sides released a Declaration of Principles which established a Security Commission and introduced a “joint strategy” that “seeks to prevent the presence or action of illegal-armed groups.” This high-profile meeting, along with Chávez’ declaration that “the Colombian guerrillas do not have a future through the armed struggle,” should signify to Washington that an opportunity is at hand for the State Department to allow major South American actors to administer talks through the regional body UNASUR or to promote additional bilateral negotiations. However, the U.S. stance on terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere is not likely to change despite Chávez’ unforeseen overtures toward the new Colombian president, and State Department officials remain concerned over Venezuela’s assumed relationship with FARC and ELN.

Pressure Continues to Mount as U.S. Boosts Military Presence across Latin America

Although Colombia-Venezuela relations have improved for the time being, Venezuelan officials remain skeptical of the U.S.’ role in Colombia. The Defense Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, which grants the U.S. military access to seven Colombian bases and greatly troubles Chávez, was shelved by the Colombian Constitutional Court on August 17 because it was not previously approved by the nation’s congress. Nevertheless, it is expected to be quickly passed by the Santos administration. If and when the deal goes into effect, Washington will have $46 million at its disposal to facilitate development at Colombia’s Palanquero military base per the 2010 National Authorization Defense Act.

Despite claims by U.S. officials that a greater U.S. military presence at Palanquero and other bases in Colombia will serve to improve counter-narcotics efforts in the region, Chávez has roundly denounced the move as a direct threat to Venezuela’s security. Indeed, the U.S. Southern Command has tapped the base as “a location from which mobility operations could be executed” in the event of a threat to U.S. security interests. However, the arrangement had been in place since October 2009, and the U.S. military limited its operations to matters of domestic Colombian security.

U.S. military actions elsewhere have also fueled Chávez’ accusations that Washington is reverting back to its hegemonic tendencies. In an incident last January, an American fighter jet based on the Dutch island of Curacao was allegedly intercepted and turned back by Venezuelan military planes just after the jet had entered Venezuelan airspace without prior clearance. Since the incident, Chávez has increasingly warned that U.S. bases in Curacao and Aruba, which lie in close proximity to Venezuela, could be gearing up for a military assault against his nation.

Additionally, the U.S.’ new pact with the Costa Rican government, which will allow up to 7,000 U.S. military personnel to patrol the nation’s waters for drug interdiction purposes, has further sparked worries in Caracas. Chávez confirmed these fears during his national address on July 24. According to Chávez, the aforementioned confidential letter stated that the U.S. is “accelerating the execution phase, [which] goes together with the movement of a containment force, as they call it, to Costa Rica, under the pretext of combating drug trafficking. The truth is that their mission is to support military operations in an open manner…” Although it appears highly unlikely that the U.S. would provoke a conflict from such a location, Pentagon officials must understand that increasing the military presence—whether to interdict drug shipments or for other purposes—in a region whose left-leaning leaders are disenchanted with Washington’s past policies will merely signal a return to those strategies.

The Palmer Affair: The Future Remains Uncertain for Nominated Diplomat

In a routine session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 27, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Venezuela, Larry Palmer, was asked a series of questions regarding the State Department’s views toward Venezuela as well as his personal take on a number of troubling developments in the country. Far from providing measured responses to the audience of lawmakers, Palmer harshly criticized the Chávez government, ridiculing its treatment of the army and declaring Caracas’ “clear ties” to Colombian rebel groups. Palmer alleged that “morale [in the Venezuelan Army] is reported to be considerably low, particularly due to politically-oriented appointments.” Furthermore, he claimed that “the Venezuelan government has been unwilling to prevent Colombian guerrillas from entering and establishing camps in Venezuelan territory.”

As expected, Palmer’s remarks riled Chávez. On his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, Chávez implored Obama to reconsider his selection for ambassador stating, “[Palmer] cannot come [to Venezuela] as ambassador. He disqualified himself by breaking all the laws of diplomacy, meddling with all of us, including the Armed Forces. The best thing would be for you to remove him, Obama, do not insist, I beg you.” Although the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry echoed Chávez’ sentiments and labeled Palmer’s comments “unacceptable,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley backed Palmer on August 5, stressing that his statements “convey[ed our best judgment on issues between the United States and Venezuela.” Unfortunately, Chávez has not yielded an inch on the matter and has vowed to turn Palmer away if the State Department sends him to the U.S. embassy in Caracas.

A meeting on August 11 between Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, outgoing Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Carolina Barco, and Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Álvarez provided an excellent opportunity for the parties to discuss Palmer’s nomination in addition to the recent developments in Colombia-Venezuela relations. Rather than seeking to come to terms with Álvarez over the appointment, however, Valenzuela staunchly stood by his conviction that Palmer is the right man for the job. Unfortunately, if Palmer’s nomination holds up and he is approved by the Senate this month, it is highly likely that Chávez will follow through on his promise to expel the diplomat, as he did to outgoing U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy in 2008 (Duddy was later accepted back by Venezuela). For the time being, Washington is at a crossroads: the Senate can either confirm Palmer (thus risking a severe diplomatic confrontation), or it can seek to build upon the recent positive developments between Caracas and Bogotá by attempting to engage the Venezuelan government in meaningful dialogue.

What Will the Future Hold?

While the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations does not solely revolve around Palmer’s instatement as ambassador, the dispute certainly comes at a critical juncture with respect to the two countries’ regional foreign policy. The product of Chávez’ meeting with Santos, which is expected to yield more short-term economic results than tangible security improvements for Colombia and Venezuela, should nonetheless be viewed by the U.S. as a step toward greater solidarity and stability between the two neighbors. Moreover, the secretary general of UNASUR, Néstor Kirchner, acted as a mediator during the talks, a sign that South America’s leaders are ever more ready to work toward creating a unified continent on a collaborative basis.

Sending Palmer to Caracas in September would diminish nearly any opportunity for the U.S. to also improve relations with Venezuela in the foreseeable future, as his accusatory remarks have been met with hostility both there and in other South American nations. Chávez is far from the perfect leader, but he has been far more bark than bite throughout his presidency. He certainly has the right to refuse a diplomat who has not shown the required respect for the institutions and leaders of a prospective host nation, and who appears to be incapable of maintaining a civil relationship with the government in Caracas while simultaneously promoting American national interests. If progressives in the Senate cannot muster enough support to block Palmer’s nomination after Congress reconvenes this month (a scenario which now seems likely), then the Obama administration can expect to continue to bear the brunt of Chávez’ frequent outbursts.

As for a potential military confrontation in the region, any clash between Venezuela and a U.S.-backed Colombian force seems far-fetched. The U.S. will certainly remain concerned over guerrilla activities in the dense jungle terrain in Colombia and Venezuela, but Washington would be wise to promote more diplomatic exchanges between Bogotá and Caracas before further exerting its military might at Colombian bases. Other than meeting with Santos, Chávez has already shown positive signs of his renewed approach to Colombia: in another development, he agreed with Colombian officials who recently labeled a war between the two nations as “implausible.” From Chávez’ perspective, the potential economic consequences of an armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela would be devastating for his nation’s already troubled economy. By the same token, he would be foolish to cut off oil exports to the U.S. in response to military tensions between Caracas and Washington. As the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil, U.S. purchases account for more than half of Venezuela’s oil exports.

With September elections set to determine the deputies of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Washington must also exercise caution in its political dealings within Venezuela. The elections will serve as a critical test for both Chávez (he will face reelection in 2012) and the rule of law in Venezuela; however, the level of U.S. involvement in the contests will also provide clues as to how much faith Washington has in Venezuela’s democratic processes. Over the past several years, analysts have grown worried that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have provided extensive support to the political opposition in Venezuela, an indication that Washington may want nothing to do with Caracas as long as Chávez’ United Socialist Party retains control.

Whatever the results on September 26, the U.S. and Venezuela will still have as many issues to iron out as ever. If the State Department truly wishes to expand upon its stated goal to develop a relationship with Caracas based on mutual interests, then it should consider a new policy path. Officials in Washington should seek to facilitate a candid dialogue with the Chávez government by appointing an ambassador who can press the government on issues of concern such as human rights abuses, political oppression, and drug trafficking, and at the same time encourage greater economic and political cooperation with Caracas. Because the U.S. is not likely to tone down its military or political presence in Latin America to curry favor with the region’s emerging powers, this policy could prevent additional backlash against the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions. If Washington fails to alter its stance and continues to stir up anti-imperialist sentiments in Caracas and elsewhere, however, it will only help fuel Chávez’ campaign against the “Yankee empire.”