A week ago, during the annual general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Venezuelan counterpart, Elias Jaua, to discuss improvement of relations between the two countries. Relations between the two have been severely strained during the 14- year rule of Hugo Chavez.
The meeting took place when the United States government had not yet officially recognized the legitimacy of President Nicolas Maduro whose election on April 14th raised suspicions of fraud. The Obama Administration also supported a recount. The recount was conducted but without checking paper ballots which the opposition had specifically requested. Since this was not done the opposition refused to recognize Maduro‘s victory.
Yet, the meeting between the two diplomats took place in a “positive” atmosphere. Secretary Kerry declared that both countries agreed to “find a new way” forward. Venezuela, as a gesture, released from jail an American documentary filmmaker who had been accused of conspiring against the government.
There is nothing wrong when two parties whose relations are tense seek to make things better. However, good relations between the U.S. and Venezuela must require that the government of Venezuela radically change a very dangerous behavior.
Arbitrary arrests, abuse of state resources, intimidation of the opposition, subjugation of the judiciary, and demand of loyalty to the revolutionary government and other violations of rights are common practice in today’s Venezuela. Neither the international community, the OAS, nor other countries of the region including the United States have ever held the Venezuelan government accountable for these gross breaches of human rights. But this is not all.
According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2009, Venezuela extended a lifeline to Colombian illegal and armed groups by providing them with significant support and safe haven along the border. As a result, these groups remain viable threats to Colombian security and U.S.-Colombian counternarcotic efforts. The report provided evidence of the activities and cooperation between the Venezuelan government with drug cartels and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The report revealed that the flow of cocaine shipped from Venezuelan ports and airports to the United States, West Africa, and Europe increased more than four times from 2004 to 2007 and continues to increase. Likewise, cocaine destined for the United States from Venezuela transits through Central America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands. Between January and July, 2008, numerous vessels with Venezuelan flags that were carrying large amounts of cocaine were seized.
Furthermore, a Colombian army raid in Ecuador in March, 2008 seized FARC computers and discovered documents belonging to FARC leader Raúl Reyes (known as the Reyes files). The files indicated that the Venezuelan government may have provided the Colombian guerillas with about $300 million in Russian weapons supplies. The files also seem to indicate that Chavez sought political and military cooperation with the FARC at the same time as the Colombian government was denouncing the presence of FARC training camps inside Venezuela. The FARC is a dangerous subversive force that threatens Colombia’s security and is also involved in drug trafficking.
While the United States is putting efforts into fighting drug traffickers in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, Venezuela is providing them with a lifeline. The danger of this development is not only that drug trafficking poisons our population and in particular our youth but that the drug business corrupts governments, security forces and the legal system. In Central American countries are now facing a state of anarchy that is gradually creating another “Afghanistan” in our own hemisphere with all the dangers that this implies.
Venezuelan relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran are no less worrisome. The government of Venezuela has strengthened relations with Iran and has helped Iran and its proxies increase their presence throughout the continent. As more countries joined Chavez’s sphere of influence they also developed relations with Iran and Iran increased its presence in those countries. This includes a growing presence of the Iranian proxy and terrorist group, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Republican Guards. A Lebanese-born Venezuelan diplomat posted in the Venezuelan embassy in Syria and Lebanon, Ghazi Nasr al-Din, helped Hezbollah raise money and facilitated the travel of its operatives from and to Venezuela.
Iran’s penetration into Latin America is likely to grow under the influence of the Venezuelan Bolivarian revolution.
Venezuela, along with Syria and Cuba, have been the main supporters of Iran’s right to develop a nuclear weapon. Venezuela helped Iran launder money through its banking system as well as selling the Iranians gasoline so they could avoid international sanctions. Venezuela’s actions have been in clear violation of international sanctions. Only a few days ago President Barack Obama increased sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. As part of the sanctions protocol the United States will not do business with companies or governments that help Iran avoid sanctions. If the sanctions law were fully operationalized, the U.S. would no longer be buying Venezuelan oil. This would be a severe blow to Venezuela but would make little difference to the U.S. Instead, Venezuela and Venezuelan companies such as the oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) have never paid a serious price for their dealings with Iran.
Some reports, including one by former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, even indicated that Iran is trying to extract uranium from countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia.
A scenario that should not be ruled out is that if Iran develops nuclear capabilities it could use Venezuelan soil to make the United States more vulnerable to an attack.
Trying to diminish tensions and develop peaceful relations with countries is a good goal to pursue.
However, in the case of Venezuela, before peaceful and productive relations can be established the United States government must set conditions demanding that Venezuela completely cease its human rights violations and fully dismantle all its ties to terrorist groups and drug cartels as well as ceasing to assist Iran in their effort to avoid sanctions.
Luis Fleischman is the author of the book, “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States.”