Four key events in the first month of 2012 signal increased tensions between the United States and Venezuela. These are:
1. The expulsion of the Venezuelan Consul in Miami, Livia Acosta, for suspicion of cyber terrorism;
2. Iranian strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Caracas and closer ties with Hugo Chavez’s Latin American allies;
3. The promotion of a U.S. Treasury Department-designated drug kingpin — Henry Rangel Silva — to Defense Minister;
4. A Paris-based international arbitration board’s (International Chamber of Commerce) decision favoring Exxon Mobil’s lawsuit against the government of Venezuela, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Venezuelan government from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a World Bank entity.
Why are these events important?
First, in December 2011, the U.S. Hispanic TV network Univision aired a groundbreaking documentary that exposed the existence of a plot between the governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran to execute cybernetic attacks against U.S. targets and placed the Venezuelan consul in Miami at the center of the conspiracy. This documentary triggered a series of missives from members of the U.S. Congress to the administration asking for an investigation of the allegations.
A few weeks later, the State Department declared the Venezuelan consul “persona-non-grata” and ordered her expulsion. The Venezuelan government’s response was to close its Miami consulate. In effect, Chavez’s action was a punitive blow against Venezuelans living in Florida, since the consulate provided legal representation, business documents, passport renewals, student visas and, perhaps most significantly, served as the polling place for overseas Venezuelans to vote in their national elections.
Second, the visit of Ahmadinejad to Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, in the midst of an increasingly tense confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and the United States along with the European Union, should be seen as a provocation by Chavez toward the United States. Chavez has publicly and repeatedly backed Iran's nuclear program.
While the Venezuelan and Iranian regimes may have some different world views, one philosophy unites them: a fierce “anti-American” stance. Yet the U.S. response was tepid. In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, President Barack Obama commented on Iran-Venezuela relations, saying: "Sooner or later, the people of Venezuela will have to determine what possible advantage gives them having a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights, and that’s isolated from most of the world."
In a fashion that has become typical of the Obama administration, however, other members of his government have downplayed the Iranian presence in Latin America. Sending mixed signals in matters of national security is, at best, risky.
Third, the appointment of Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who is included in the list of "drug kingpins" by the U.S. government, as minister of defense of Venezuela is another example of Chavez’s disregard of U.S. opinion.
Rangel Silva is accused by the U.S. government of collaborating with drug trafficking by the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) into Venezuela. These charges stem from information obtained by the Colombian government from the captured computer of Raul Reyes, late leader of the Marxist FARC in Colombia.
Moreover, only a few days ago Miami’s El Nuevo Herald reported that Hugo Chavez is aware of drug transactions in which members of his government are involved.
Fourth, on Dec. 23, the ICC (International Chamber of Commerce, based in Paris) ruled that Venezuela’s government-owned oil company, PDVSA, should pay Exxon Mobil a total of $907 million as payment in a contract dispute. While this sum is considerably less than the one claimed by Exxon, this same case is currently being argued at the World Bank’s ICSID; another verdict is expected soon.
Of greater import, however, is that just days after the ICC ruling, the government of Venezuela announced that the country will withdraw from the ICSID. Should this occur, it could trigger even more commercial problems between Venezuela and the United States because of the country's contracts with American corporations.
All these facts foretell a pattern of conflict in bilateral relations between both countries this year, a presidential election year in Venezuela.
On one hand, Chavez will increasingly use the anti-American message as part of his campaign. By creating actions that openly provoke the United States, he will try to cover many Venezuelan domestic problems by blaming and ridiculing the "Empire", his synonym for the U.S.
On the other hand, public statements by members of the U.S. government seem to lack understanding of the importance Venezuela’s hostile actions have for the continent’s stability and U.S. standing.
Chavez’s government is undertaking at least four actions that directly undermine the United States:
1. Participation in planning sabotage along with Cuba and Iran;
2. Increasing commercial and military linkages with Iran, opening the door for Iran to maintain strong relations with Latin America (see, for example, the recent launch of an Iranian news channel in Spanish seeking to reach Spanish-language speakers);
3. Appointment of an accused drug trafficker as defense minister;
4. Defiance of international peaceful dispute settlement by withdrawing from ICSID.
The United States has not acted wisely or powerfully toward any of these challenges, causing it to lose respect and prestige in the region. Our lack of attention to Latin America’s problems during the last three years, added to an electoral debate focusing on domestic matters, makes it unlikely that there will be a change in policy toward the Western Hemisphere. This can only embolden Chavez and his allies and make matters worse for the next occupant of the White House.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Email: email@example.com / Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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