Bush and Chavez, Connected at the Hip

(International Relations and Security Network, 03/10/2005)


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on 16 September that the world could not tolerate the US way of life, adding that "Mr. Bush represents the most crude and savage imperialism that threatens the world." His fiery, anti-US speech at the UN General Assembly earned the most applause of any speech given that day. Meanwhile, the US has placed Venezuela on its blacklist of countries not cooperating with the US-driven "war on drugs".


The US government considers Venezuela a major transit country for drug trafficking. Venezuela has not denied the charge.


Sources in the US State Department argue that Venezuela facilitates the passage of up to one-third of the cocaine and heroine that is smuggled from Colombia to the US and Europe.


This amount represents between 150 and 162 tonnes of cocaine and 3 to 5 tonnes of heroine, according to various sources. The US government considers Venezuela to be second only to Mexico in illicit drug transit, making it South America's number one drug transit country.


Venezuela's porous border with Colombia is not controlled by either state. Colombian rebel and paramilitary groups hold sway over these ungoverned areas. The long Caribbean coast of Venezuela is also poorly patrolled. The southern border with Brazil is perhaps even less patrolled. And Venezuela's border with Guyana to the east exists on paper only. Porous borders are a reality throughout South America, however, not just in Venezuelan.


Seizures in transit


The UN reported that Venezuela had seized some 32 tonnes of cocaine in 2003, 7 per cent of the total amount of cocaine seized in the world that year. The country ranked fourth after Colombia, the US, and Spain in cocaine hauls. In 2004, the US government congratulated Venezuela for seizing 43 tonnes of drugs. This year to date, Venezuelan authorities have seized some 59 tonnes of drugs and 72 tonnes of precursor chemicals, according to the Venezuelan Office of the Vice President.


This year has been a record year for cocaine seizures in Venezuela. With such an amount of cocaine trading hands, there is opportunity for corruption. Frustration between the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and its Venezuelan counterpart, the National Guard, has contributed to some finger-pointing, rumors, and other counterproductive activities.


When the French seized four tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, the Venezuelan National Guard took an interest. Venezuela's petition to repatriate the cocaine haul, along with the Venezuelan drug traffickers caught with the large shipment, raised eyebrows. Among many rumors, some claimed it was likely that the Venezuelan government included data on seizures on other countries in its own national reporting.


These claims and others have cast a shadow on Venezuela's otherwise impeccable interdiction record.


The Sun Cartel, DEA spy games, and hot air


The DEA and its Venezuelan counterparts in the National Guard have worked reasonably well together to combat drug trafficking over the years. Tensions heightened when the DEA declared that some National Guard members were corrupt and involved in drug trafficking last year. The term "Sun Cartel" gained circulation around this time; it referred to the insignia of general's rank used in the Venezuelan National Guard instead of stars.


Disagreements between the two groups led to some members of Venezuela's National Guard to have their US visas revoked, including National Guard anti-drug chief General Frank Morgado.


This action prompted Chavez to order his government officials to stop working with the DEA. "The DEA was using the fight against drug trafficking as a mask, to support drug trafficking [and] to carry out intelligence in Venezuela against the government," Chavez said.


The DEA has denied these charges, but contributes to an intermittent negative media campaign from both sides. The mud-slinging distracts from important work. The DEA, however, continues to work with the Venezuelan government despite these unilateral accusations.


As recently as the last week of September, the US embassy received documents from the Venezuelan government outlining new parameters for cooperation between local law enforcers and the DEA.


The spat between Washington and Caracas over this incident did have repercussions at the diplomatic level, however. President Bush announced on 15 September that Venezuela, as a major drug transit country, had been judged to be corrupt and uncooperative in assisting the US government with its "war on drugs". The White House made its announcement a day before Chavez arrived in New York to attend the UN General Assembly meeting.


Process and outcome of decertification


The Majors List is a register of those countries the US government deems to be significant sources of drug production or drug transit throughout the world. Countries on the 2005 list include: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.


When the White House decides to decertify a country on the Majors List, it takes a number of factors into consideration over the term of one year. Interdiction figures matter in transit zone countries. Venezuela's active cooperation with the DEA was an important consideration. The US government's perception of Venezuela's goodwill towards working with Washington to combat drug trafficking was perhaps the most subjective criterion, and yet was given extra weight in the final decision.


This year, Venezuela and Burma were "decertified", meaning the US will no longer send funds to those countries and will vote against any measures to help these countries at any one of six international lending institutions, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank.


The US government claims Venezuela pulled a "key operational component" out of its National Guard ranks, referring to Chavez's decision to fire a number of National Guard top brass.


Chavez did fire Venezuela's national counter-narcotics director, the chief narcotics prosecutor, and the head of the financial intelligence unit.


"This [statement] has some truth to it," Venezuelan political observer Carlos Pietri told ISN Security Watch. "But they were not fired for reasons stated by [the US]; they were fired for allowing the DEA to process arrests in our country without the presence of Venezuelan officials," he added.


Venezuela did not sign a bilateral data-sharing agreement, as prescribed by the Cooperating Nation Information Exchange System (CNIES). This agreement allows the DEA to share with Venezuelan officials satellite images, intercepted communications, and other sensitive data used to interdict drug shipments.


Decertification means very little for Venezuela, however. With over US$30 billion in foreign reserves, the amount of funding Caracas received from the US was not even a drop in the bucket. This decertification was little more than a public dressing-down of Chavez on the global stage, intended to embarrass him on the eve of his speech at the UN General Assembly. It could not have been better timed, or more irrelevant to the actual work that is being done to fight drug trafficking in Venezuela.


Politics vs. reality


Chavez's constant contact with countries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea is clearly a thorn in the side of the Bush administration. Chavez has announced intentions to purchase Amur-class diesel submarines from Russia. These submarines can carry cruise missiles and torpedos.


Rumors have circulated that Chavez has improved relations with Iran in order to discuss nuclear technology. There is still no concrete evidence of this, however. It is equally unlikely that Chavez will purchase long-range missiles from North Korea. Korean missiles such as the Nodong-1, if stationed in Venezuela, would be able to strike deep into Colombian territory, hitting cities such as Bogota and possibly Medellin.


Meanwhile, Venezuela and North Korea have initiated a process towards opening embassies in Caracas and Pyongyang, the North Korean deputy minister of the Popular Assembly, Yang Hyong Sop, announced in late September. The possibility of a de-facto US enemy and possible nuclear power establishing a base in Caracas is worrisome, but it is unlikely that the US reaction will go beyond increased intelligence-gathering efforts in Caracas.


Chavez will not gain nuclear technology any time soon, nor would he go public about weapons purchases that would make his neighbors nervous.


Venezuela's oil production and the future of the PVDSA largely depend on Brazil's Petrobras, a company that has been actively investing in refineries and oil reserve exploration in Venezuela. The last thing Chavez wants to do is make a geopolitical move, such as buying North Korean missiles, that would upset Brazilian officials.


Chavez exports some 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the US. It is still a major export market for Venezuela, and China, the only other global economy able to absorb that amount of oil in the future, is in no hurry to do business with Chavez.


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, Venezuela pledged an emergency donation of some one million barrels of gas to the US. Chavez made good on that offer on 25 September with the announcement of a shipment of 24,000 barrels of gasoline destined for the US through Port Everglades, Florida.


This gas delivery could not have come at a better time to support the hurricane relief effort.


Both Bush and Chavez are connected at the hip. They cannot live without one another, nor do they like each other's political views. They both use the media and minor slaps on the wrist to perpetuate a duel of verbal swordplay that keeps both in the news, but neither one up at night.


"Conflict is a loaded word," the press attache at the US embassy in Caracas, Brian Penn, told ISN Security Watch. Penn argues that the US and Venezuela do "have fundamental philosophical disagreements in our world views", but they have no reason to go to war, quite the contrary.


Clearly, there are two different political philosophies at work in the US and in Venezuela. What appears to be a low-level conflict has not yet become more of a threat because Chavez has not crossed that line, nor will he anytime soon. The nature of geopolitics has drawn this line at nuclear technology and energy security. Chavez is not close to nuclear technology. He is in a position to fiddle with US energy security, but it is a hedged bet.


The US buys 12 to 15 per cent of Venezuelan oil. Venezuelan oil is heavy and requires a refinement process that Venezuela's oil company PVDSA cannot perform without the aid of its US-based refineries, such as Citgo Lyondell in Texas. Chavez is reticent to give up this important revenue stream until he can find another buyer of Venezuelan crude and another place to refine the oil.


The energy tug-of-war will continue to spark small conflicts between the unhappy bedfellows, but it should not limit important drug interdiction work.


"Both countries have a vested interest in stopping narco-traffickers," Penn argued, adding: "Narco-traffickers should be the focus of both countries' efforts, not the DEA or any other law enforcement agency."


Without cooperation between the US and Venezuela on narco-trafficking, both countries lose and organized crime wins, an outcome that does not increase security in either country, or the region.


Both countries are locked in an embrace of economic necessity, despite differences in political philosophy and regional strategic interests. The relationship between Venezuela and the US does not constitute a conflict, however. It is a co-dependence exacerbated by philosophical differences. Focusing on these differences will do little to secure the region against drug traffickers, who seem to consistently come out on top when governments collide.

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