The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a report titled “Playing with Fire: Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela” which looks at the diplomatic conflict between these countries that triggered by the death on March 1, 2008 of Raul Reyes, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The report was authored at the direction of Republican Senator Richard Lugar by Carl Meacham, the committee’s senior Republican staff expert on Latin America. Mr. Meacham is considered one of the most perceptive Republican experts on Latin America currently in Washington, DC; he grew up in Latin America and has been engaged with the region throughout his professional career. The full report can be purchased from the US government printing office (www.bookstore.gpo.gov or (202) 512-1800).
Mr. Meacham visited Ecuador and Colombia, and wrote his report before Interpol issued its own report on whether thousands of documents seized in a laptop owned by FARC chieftain Reyes are authentic. The laptop was captured at the FARC camp by Colombian security forces which entered Ecuador to retrieve the narco-terrorist chieftain’s corpse. Interpol’s report on the contents of Reyes’ laptop will be issued on May 15, but daily newspaper El Tiempo of Bogota has already reported that Interpol has concluded the captured laptop and its contents are legitimate and authentic.
If El Tiempo is correct about Interpol’s still-unpublished conclusions, the political implications for President Hugo Chavez in Caracas and President Rafael Correa in Ecuador potentially could be very significant. It depends on how far President George W. Bush is prepared to go in terms of imposing terror-related sanctions against the current governments of Venezuela and Ecuador.
Before reviewing Mr. Meacham’s recommendations, it must be understood that his report’s main goal is to defuse pressures by some Republican policymakers in Washington, DC to have the Bush administration list Venezuela and Ecuador officially as State Sponsors of Terrorism. Senator Lugar by nature is a moderate, unlike his predecessor as the top Republican lawmaker on the Foreign Relations Committee, former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC).
Helms very likely would have ordered his senior staffer on Latin America, former OAS Ambassador Roger Noriega, to produce a report on the Reyes incident calling for tough sanctions against the Chavez and Correa governments if the contents of Reyes’ laptop were officially authenticated by Interpol. But Senator Lugar has always preferred multilateral consensus-building between Washington and the region’s democratic governments. Ideologically, on Latin America issues he leans towards center-left think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations than The Heritage Foundation.
Lugar believes that US credibility and influence in Latin America, which has declined significantly since 1994, very likely would be further hurt if the Bush administration takes unilateral actions against Caracas and Quito. The oil and other corporate lobbyists in contact with Lugar and his Republican staffers undoubtedly also have cautioned strongly that any terror-related sanctions against Venezuela, particularly, could endanger Venezuelan oil exports to the US and US non-oil exports to Venezuela.
In effect, the report’s top caveat to President Bush is that the US must tread carefully because listing Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism could have unforeseen and unintended negative consequences for US strategic interests in Latin America. The region’s historical “sensitivities regarding sovereignty and the history in which these sensitivities developed…wars between Latin American countries and past interventions by European powers and the US…” must not be ignored when determining what, if any, sanctions should be imposed against Venezuela and possibly Ecuador.
Mr. Meacham’s report makes these recommendations:
· It is important for the United States to encourage a constructive regional framework that features a clear and explicit consensus. This consensus should unequivocally declare that the methods used by the FARC, and other like groups, violate both Colombia’s sovereignty and the sovereignty of other countries where they operate, regardless of how these groups are classified, whether terrorist, irregular or belligerent.
· Staff strongly cautions that policymakers must be wary of the implications of poorly thought out sanctions which might isolate the United States and lessen its ability to bring about constructive reforms and thereby advance US government interests.
· Staff advises that any new sanctions regime must not impinge on US commercial prospects in Venezuela.
· Staff believes in this case that U.S. actions are stronger if they rest on the foundation of regional support. Absent such support, US sanctions on Venezuela would be less effective. Indeed, they might be counter-productive.
· The USG has to act with care that other Latin American countries do not see themselves labeled unnecessarily and provocatively as supporters of terror, or the surrogates of terrorists, simply because they are carrying out their perceived national interest in maintaining relations with Venezuela.
· It is better for the United States’ long term interests in the region to be seen as respectful of the on-going process established in the OAS, which up to now has been beneficial in defusing tensions.
· On this occasion, rather than “speaking softly and carrying a big stick”’ the better posture for the USG to assume is one of speaking with gentle persuasion, and wise counsel, and letting those “sticks”’ that may need to be wielded be ones of a multi-lateral rather than a unilateral nature.
· Additional sanctions would be perceived as more legitimate if enacted within a multilateral framework.
· If Venezuela is found to be complicit, the U.S would be wise to allow for the regional dynamic to take its course. If the US reacts too strongly, attention will go from Venezuela’s transgressions to yet another example of “American intervention”’ and strong-arm tactics.
· It is in this climate that political space will open for USG input that seeks to engender effective multilateral action in reaction to any nation that contravenes US national security priorities and the collective interests of member countries of the OAS and signatories of its Charter.
· The US government must ensure that information gathered from the “Reyes Computers”’ is disseminated broadly and the process of how it was analyzed is transparent.
We’re told that Mr. Meacham’s recommendations reflect the views of some senior State Department officials on how to manage relations with Venezuela if it’s confirmed that President Chavez has been cooperating actively with the FARC. Some observers of the broken US-Venezuela relationship will say that moderation, multilateralism and a nuanced diplomatic strategy in which the OAS countries are engaged in developing joint policies to contain Chavez is the only effective approach to the political explosion from Caracas which certainly will come when Interpol’s report is issued in less than a week.
However, while US interests in the region probably would not be advanced if President Bush decides unilaterally to list the Chavez government as a state sponsor of terrorism, the option of a multilateral and moderate approach of engaging the region’s democracies to develop effective strategies to contain Chavez will not work either.
The US does not have the influence and authority to build a regional diplomatic front in Latin America to contain Chavez, even if – as Mr. Meacham proposes – all the captured FARC documents are published on the Internet by a credible and impartial entity like Interpol. Most policymakers and think tank wonks in Washington, DC still believe the US still has economic, military and political sway over Latin America. But these folks are sadly mistaken, and out of touch with the geopolitical realities of the region today.
The large South American democracies – Brazil, Argentina and Chile – will not engage in any multilateral diplomatic moves against Venezuela’s Bolivarian government. Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama and the Caribbean states certainly will refuse to engage with the US against Chavez. Peru’s government isn’t friendly with Caracas, but also likely will say no. Colombia likely will prefer neutrality since Venezuela is its second largest trading partner. The Colombians know Chavez’s intentions better than anyone else, but the nine-years-plus that Chavez has been in power has been a very prosperous period for Colombian exporters. Perhaps El Salvador and Mexico could be persuaded to join with the US.
The OAS always has been a toothless entity, a Washington-based reflection of the weak diplomatic influence of its member states, many of whom Chavez successfully neutralized years ago with cheap oil and cash. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, a Chilean Socialist who owes his cushy job to the support he got from the Chavez government and other governments friendly with Caracas, will never agree to use the OAS to push a multilateral diplomatic offensive against Venezuela. It makes no difference what the captured FARC documents may “prove.” Besides, if the OAS does try to impose any sanctions on Venezuela, President Chavez simply will quit the OAS.
Chavez also could retaliate harshly against US companies and nationals in Venezuela. He could nationalize the auto, pharmaceuticals and food companies. And he could expel US nationals from Venezuela.
But Venezuelan threats of severe economic repercussions in the US are irrelevant. A decision by President Chavez to suspend oil exports to the US and to prohibit US imports from entering Venezuela would be extremely damaging to Venezuela, far more so than to the US. Most of the crude Venezuela exports to the US must be processed by deep conversion refineries. The US has most of the world’s deep conversion refining capacity, while valued new Bolivarian partners like China, Iran and Russia do not have such capacity. Also, over half of Venezuela’s food, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, etc. imports come from the US.
However, Chavez can count on the aid of US oil companies, the US Chamber of Commerce and other entities that represent companies doing business in Venezuela, all of which will lobby strenuously in Washington against imposing any sanctions on Venezuela.