The Miami Herald
December 5, 2000

Neighbors say Chávez aids violent groups


 Two Latin American governments have privately complained to Venezuelan
 President Hugo Chávez about his alleged support for violent groups in their
 countries, amid growing U.S. fears that the populist Venezuelan leader may be
 trying to export his ``social revolution'' abroad, The Miami Herald has learned.

 The private complaints by the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador took place
 before an angry Colombian diplomatic protest last week over the Venezuelan
 government's alleged political support for Colombian guerrillas. Colombia has
 recalled its ambassador to Venezuela ``for consultations,'' prompting Venezuela
 to do the same with its own ambassador to Colombia.

 Clinton administration officials say they are aware of the three incidents, and are
 following them closely.

 ``There are indications of Chávez government support for violent indigenous
 movements in Bolivia,'' said Peter Romero, the top State Department official in
 charge of inter-American affairs, in an interview. ``In the case of Ecuador, it
 included support for rebellious army officers.''


 Perhaps emboldened by Venezuela's record high oil income, Chávez has recently
 stepped up his international activism.

 In addition to visiting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in August in open defiance of a
 NATO ban on contacts with him, Chávez -- clad in military fatigues -- gave a
 hero's welcome in Caracas to Cuban President Fidel Castro on Oct. 26, and
 pledged to give Cuba 30,000 barrels of oil a day at heavily discounted prices.

 During Castro's five-day visit, Chávez announced a new Venezuelan foreign policy
 that he said aims at creation of ``a new center of political power'' to counter U.S.
 influence in the Western Hemisphere. ``The deepening of our relations with Cuba
 is part of that policy,'' he said.


 The latest spat with Colombia came after a Nov. 23 speech by Olga Marín, a
 senior official of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at a Latin
 American parliamentary conference held at the Chávez-controlled Venezuelan

 Chávez, a former coup plotter who won Venezuela's elections in 1998 on a
 leftist-nationalist platform, says the FARC rebels were not hosts of the
 Venezuelan government, but of Venezuelan congressional representatives at the
 Latin American Parliament, known as Parlatino, which had organized the

 But many Latin American officials say Colombia's complaint about Chávez's
 alleged sympathy for Colombian guerrillas is only the latest symptom of a growing
 Venezuelan activism in support of violence-prone leftist groups in Colombia and
 other Latin American countries.

 They say Venezuela is most likely giving money and moral support to some of
 these groups. The Venezuelan government denies it is giving any material support
 to any violent group abroad.


 But Bolivian and U.S. officials say Bolivia's President Hugo Bánzer personally
 complained to Chávez at a recent regional summit about his alleged support for
 Felipe Quispe, the leader of a Bolivian coca-growers' movement that led a bloody
 national strike earlier this year.

 According to Bolivian officials, Chávez met with Quispe during a three-day visit to
 Bolivia in late August, before the outbreak of violence that left 11 dead and 120
 wounded. Quispe supporters later put out leaflets saying they had support from
 Chávez for their revolutionary goals.


 In an interview, Bolivian Foreign Minister Javier Murillo de la Rocha confirmed that
 the meeting with Quispe ``created concern'' within the Bolivian government, but
 denied that his country has issued a formal protest to the Venezuelan

 ``Rather than a complaint, we raised a question to President Chávez about the
 nature of such meeting,'' Murillo said in a telephone interview. ``President Chávez
 categorically denied that he had given [material] support to these groups . . . and
 for the time being we have to take him at his word.''

 But other well-placed officials say Bolivia is downplaying the incident because
 Venezuela is one of the few countries that have openly backed landlocked
 Bolivia's most-pressing foreign policy issue: its century-old demand that Chile
 grant it access to the Pacific Ocean.

 ``We are a small country with not too many friends, and Chávez is one of the few
 that is siding with us 100 percent on this,'' one Bolivian official said.

 In Ecuador, government officials say there are unconfirmed reports that Chávez or
 his supporters may have given money to Col. Lucio Gutiérrez, the leader of a Jan.
 21 coup that toppled President Jamil Mahuad.


 But the Venezuelan money -- more than $500,000, according to one Ecuadorean
 source -- was delivered after the coup, at about the time when Gutiérrez declared
 himself ``an admirer of President Chávez'' and pledged to pursue a political career,
 the sources say. The money was used for ``logistics'' -- including trips and
 political propaganda.

 Gutiérrez, the Ecuadorean coup plotter, was imprisoned for several months after
 his short-lived ``government of national unity'' collapsed under U.S. and
 international pressure. Ecuador's Congress later appointed Vice President
 Gustavo Noboa as the new president.


 According to one Ecuadorean source with access to military information,
 Gutiérrez was visited in prison by a Venezuelan diplomat, who brought him books
 and a message from Chávez.

 After his release from prison under a presidential pardon, Gutiérrez is said to have
 traveled to Venezuela to meet with Chávez. Since his return to Ecuador, Gutiérrez
 and his fellow former coup plotters have spent significant amounts of money in
 political propaganda, which many Ecuadorean officials suspect may have come
 from Venezuela.

 Asked about these reports, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller told The
 Herald that ``there has been information that Gutiérrez and some of these
 colonels who staged the Jan. 21 coup attempt visited Venezuela after the coup, in
 search of solidarity and sympathy for their cause. We don't know whether they
 got it.''

 Moeller said he raised the issue with his Venezuelan counterpart José Vicente
 Rangel at a recent regional summit in Panama, ``and the reports were
 categorically denied by the Venezuelan government, who we want and are eager
 to believe.''

 While some members of the military group that led the Jan. 21 coup in Ecuador
 have vowed to lay down their weapons and start new careers in politics, other
 have not ruled out a new effort to take power by force.


 Other well-placed Ecuadoreans with access to military intelligence information
 say there is no conclusive evidence of the alleged Chávez financial support for
 Gutiérrez and the other former coup plotters, but ``strong suspicions'' about it.

 ``What is very clear is that we have a group of retired military officials who don't
 need to work to do their campaigns,'' one Ecuadorean with access to his
 country's intelligence informacion says. ``They obviously have a source of

 Tarek William Saab, the pro-Chávez president of the Venezuelan Congress'
 foreign policy committee, dismissed the reports about Venezuela's support for
 Latin American violent groups as ``absurd.''

 ``If you follow this line of reasoning, President Chávez should also be blamed for
 Hurricane Mitch, or the war in Bosnia,'' Saab said. ``There is no material support
 for any of these groups, nor will there be any in the future.''


 Until now, the Clinton administration has maintained that while Chávez's rhetoric
 is increasingly anti-American, he has not carried out any concrete actions that
 threaten U.S. interests. But since Chávez's decision to provide subsidized oil to
 Cuba and his possible support for insurgent groups in Colombia, Bolivia and
 Ecuador, some diplomats and congressional watchers wonder whether the next
 U.S. administration will follow that line.

 ``The next administration will have to do a cold-blooded assessment of where
 Chávez is headed,'' said Roger Noriega, a senior staffer at the U.S. Senate
 Foreign Relations Committee, noting that Venezuela is a top oil supplier to the
 United States. ``It will have to take measures, such as buying oil elsewhere, to
 prevent any U.S. oil crunch if Chávez decides to act irresponsibly.''