Neighbors say Chávez aids violent groups
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
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
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
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
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.
SPAT WITH COLOMBIA
The latest spat with Colombia came after a Nov. 23 speech by Olga
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
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
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
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
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.
MONEY FOR `LOGISTICS'
But the Venezuelan money -- more than $500,000, according to one
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
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.
VISITED BY DIPLOMAT
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
Asked about these reports, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller
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
Moeller said he raised the issue with his Venezuelan counterpart
Rangel at a recent regional summit in Panama, ``and the reports were
categorically denied by the Venezuelan government, who we want and are eager
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
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
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.''
NO CONCRETE ACTIONS
Until now, the Clinton administration has maintained that while
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
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.''