Venezuela: Amateur Dramatics, False Witness

"Who gives any thing to Poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew; set ratsbane by his porridge; made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting-horse over four inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold. O, do de, do de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting and taking! Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes. There could I have him now, and there again, and there." (Storm still)
King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4.

Shakespeare foresaw Thomas Shannon’s July 17th Statement to Congress on Venezuela by four hundred years. There he was, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, mewling about Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, giving the United States and him, Poor Tom, a hard time. Here’s Poor Tom now:

"the Government of Venezuela claims we have practiced interventionism in its political and economic life. It regularly refers to us as an “Empire,” opposes our initiatives in the Americas, and seeks out our adversaries as friends and allies. It has broken off cooperation with us on counter-drug and counter-terrorism activity, ended long-standing intelligence liaison relationships, shut down military cooperation and security assistance programs, and nationalized the holdings of some American corporations."

O, do de, do de, do de …….Could that possibly have anything to do with measures taken by the US government? Shannon gives us the list:

"Specifically, we have:

  • declared Venezuela to be “not fully cooperating” in the fight against terrorism;
  • determined that the Government of Venezuela has “failed demonstrably” in meeting its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements and U.S. domestic counternarcotics requirements.
  • rescinded Venezuela’s eligibility to purchase most kinds of U.S. weapons and weapons systems;
  • closed Venezuela’s Military Acquisition Office in Florida;
  • arrested unauthorized Venezuelan agents;
  • denied Venezuela access to Export-Import Bank financing and Overseas Private Insurance Corporation coverage;
  • designated several Venezuelan nationals under Executive Order 3224 and the Narcotics Kingpin Act for support provided to Hizballah and for trafficking illicit drugs."

In fact, on terrorism, it is the United States that has consistently refused to meet its international obligations by refusing Venezuela‘s request to extradite mass murderer Luis Posada Carriles for the bombing of a civilian airliner killing 76 people. Likewise, the United States harbours Venezuelan anti-government terrorists as well as individuals like former President Carlos Andres Perez and well-known actor Orlando Urdaneta who have called publicly for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. Similarly, the United States protects and supports Cuban terrorists who, during a terror campaign lasting nearly fifty years, have murdered over 3000 people in Cuba, including a foreign tourist.

On drugs, when the US Drugs Enforcement Agency worked in Venezuela in 2004, about 43 tons of cocaine were interdicted. After ending cooperation with the DEA, Venezuela upped its drugs seizures to nearly 80 tons in 2005. In 2007, the amount seized was nearly 60 tons. Venezuelan government figures suggest the overall figure this year is likely to be similar to last year’s seizures, with over 29 tons of drugs (62% of which was cocaine) seized so far in 2008. The Venezuelan authorities ended cooperation with the United States‘ DEA because they had doubts about the DEA’s integrity.

The US authorities have failed to demonstrate any substantive link between people Shannon refers to as "unauthorized Venezuelan agents" and the Venezuelan government. Nor is it clear what relevance dubious allegations against individuals in Venezuela completely unrelated to the Venezuelan authorities might have to US government relations with its Venezuelan counterpart. Outside the US, Latin American governments like those of Brazil or Argentina tend to dismiss such behaviour by the US government. In the same way, the US arms embargo against Venezuela can be seen as a well-worn, self-fulfilling US government ploy to smear targeted victims. In the 1980s it targeted Nicaragua. Now it targets Venezuela.

Poor Tom’s fool’s tale

So when Poor Tom whines that fiendish Hugo Chavez, while perhaps not setting ratsbane by his porridge, at least "seeks out our adversaries as friends and allies", one has to look and see. Venezuela is friends and allies in Latin America and the Caribbean with Uruguay, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Haiti, Surinam, Paraguay, Jamaica, Belize, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala and Guyana. It works closely with US-friendly OPEC countries like Nigeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Venezuela has important trade relations with Portugal, China and Vietnam.

All these countries are US friends and in many cases allies too. Venezuela remains one of the most reliable and important suppliers of oil to the United States. It operates programmes of subsidised heating oil for low income families in several US cities. It also has very important trade and energy relations with the US government’s most important regional ally, Colombia, despite sharp disagreements on other issues. What Poor Tom seems upset about is that Venezuela also has important trade relationships with countries that refuse to be bullied by the US, like Iran, Russia, Belarus and Cuba.

Those countries make up the lesser part of Venezuela‘s global trade and diplomatic relations. Most countries in the world have generally friendly trade relations with Russia.  Outside the US, most of the world has friendly relations with Cuba and a majority with Iran too. Votes in the UN General Assembly show repeatedly that on major international issues it is the United States that is diplomatically isolated. Assistant Secretary of State Shannon’s July 17th statement to Congress is another example of misleading testimony delivered by a disingenuous government official to mostly lazy-minded, smug US legislators.

Poor Tom ended his Statement : "The rhetoric and reflexive anti-Americanism of the Venezuelan government has damaged the ability of Venezuela to communicate effectively with us and many of its neighbors. However, we remain committed to a positive relationship with the people of Venezuela and have the patience and the persistence necessary to manage our challenging relationship. In so doing, we will remain focused on our larger, positive hemispheric agenda to consolidate democratic institutions and ensure that the benefits of democracy and open markets reach all citizens."

A reasonable translation of that given the US record in the region would be: "Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold…we’ll cry Monroe Doctrine ratsbane, ride our bay trotting-horse Fourth Fleet….. our star-blasting, taking corporates multinational shall monopolise the foul Latin American fiends, there could I have him now…. do poor Tom some charity." While amateur Shakespearian dramatics stalk Congressional hearing rooms, mainstream commentary echoes Shannon’s assertion of "a growing international perception that Venezuela has hit the limits of its international influence."

Venezuela consolidates

If that perception indeed exists, it is mistaken. Venezuela‘s trade and diplomatic influence continues to grow. In Maracaibo, at the recent July 14th Petrocaribe summit, Guatemala, a key US ally in Central America, joined that regional solidarity-based trade and cooperation initiative. Petrocaribe now incorporates Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guatemala, Guayana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Nevis/St Kitts, Santa Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Surinam, as well as Venezuela.

Another vital regional US ally, Costa Rica, an observer in Maracaibo, announced on July 17th it had applied to join Petrocaribe. Petrocaribe also benefits El Salvador  through non-governmental supply arrangements benefiting the country’s public transport sector. Should the FMLN win next year’s elections in March, all the indications are it will immediately join not just Petrocaribe but also the more comprehensive solidarity and cooperation initiative, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, ALBA. On July 21st, in Honduras, John Negroponte’s former death squad stomping ground, the government made clear it is seriously considering joining ALBA.

After recent successful meetings in Russia and Belarus, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited both Spain and Portugal. In Spain, King Juan Carlos presented him with a T-shirt printed with "Why don’t you shut up?" – a good-natured reference to their angry exchange during the Iberian-American Summit meeting in Santiago de Chile in November 2007. President Chavez also met the president of Spain‘s government, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. They discussed the possibility of Venezuela supplying Spain with 200,000 barrels of oil a day and Spanish assistance with renewable energy and infrastructure.

In Portugal, the Venezuelan President signed three commercial contracts and two memorandums of understanding before meeting with Portuguese President, Aníbal Cavaco Silva. The trade deals are worth US$750m,  covering telecommunications and housing as well as port and energy infrastructure. This latest set of deals follows up earlier agreements in May this year with Portugal‘s State energy company GALP to supply Venezuelan crude oil in exchange for soy oil, pasta and powdered milk.

So, on the trade front, it is completely counterfactual of Thomas Shannon and like-minded commentators to suggest that Venezuela is somehow losing influence. The reverse is true. It is the US and its European Union allies that continue to lose influence in Latin America because their discredited neoliberal debt-plus-aid model cannot compete with Petrocaribe and its big sister ALBA whose magic ingredient is oil. Nor can they realistically hope to reverse the momentum of regional efforts towards sovereign integration despite experiments with destabilization in Bolivia and in Venezuela itself.

The Andean context

That is the key also to any adequate understanding of Venezuela‘s relations with its Andean neighbours, in particular, Ecuador. To understand Ecuador‘s relations with Venezuela one has to bear in mind Rafael Correa’s experience as Economy Minister in the previous caretaker government of Alfredo Palacio, following the ouster of Lucio Gutierrez, the regional context in terms of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia and the oppressive impact of US government militarism in the region.

Correa has cut off relations with Colombia following the Uribe regime’s illegal, US-supported attack on Ecuadoran territory in which it massacred 20 people indiscriminately – Mexican civilians, an Ecuadoran and also guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Colombia has made the renewal of relations much harder by making wild accusations of support for the FARC guerrillas against Rafael Correa’s government. While steadfast against intimidation from Colombia, President Correa has also seen in Bolivia that the US government is supporting conflictive, destabilising separatist movements, while US destabilization efforts in Venezuela remain constant.

President Correa is well aware of how incipient moves for autonomy in the region of Guayaquil, Ecuador‘s largest and most economically important city, are likely to be exploited by the United States and its regional allies. While outgoing US ambassaador Linda Jewell has worked to keep relations smooth, that has not changed Correa’s decision to close the important US air and naval base at Manta when the lease expires in 2009. The recent reactivation of the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet may be in part an interim response to the looming loss of that military facility. Latin American governments generally regard it as a menace.

Correa’s Peruvian counterpart, President Alan García, has already been accused by opponents of wanting to establish a US military base in Peru. But Garcia has been unwilling to support Colombia against Ecuador. After losing the first round of Peru‘s 2006 presidential elections, Garcia won the run-off against nationalist Ollanta Humala by a margin only slightly less dodgy than Felipe Calderón’s win in Mexico. With little support outside Lima and other urban centres and support in national opinion polls at only 33%, Garcia is unlikely to waste what little domestic credit he has on diplomatic entanglements in support of Colombia.

Both Garcia and Correa hope they can revive the Community of Andean Nations (CAN) as a regional bloc with a common purpose. Venezuela left the CAN in 2006 because Colombia and Peru negotiated bilateral free trade deals with the United States, something the Venezuelan government felt made nonsense of CAN’s purpose. In 2005 Venezuela had helped Ecuador cope with the Sucumbios-Orellana oil crisis by guaranteeing supplies. Earlier that year, as Ecuadoran Economy Minister, Correa had negotiated a US$300m credit with Venezuela. The deal sidelined the World Bank and the IMF.  In response, those outfits exerted successful pressure on the Ecuadoran government to force Correa out of the Economy Ministry.

So it is with those antecedents that, on July 14th this year, Presidents Correa and Chavez inaugurated the construction of a US$10bn mega-refinery not far from the US base at Manta. Correa and Chavez were joined by Nicaragua‘s Daniel Ortega for a "mini-summit". Nicaragua, a member of ALBA, also has a dispute with Colombia, over maritime borders. It too is engaged in a joint venture oil refinery funded by Venezuela. The three leaders almost certainly compared notes on Colombia and on US destabilization activities in Central America and the Andes.

The Ecuadoran oil refinery will be the biggest on Latin America’s Pacific Coast. The deal, in the making since 2005, follows other energy agreements between Ecuador and Venezuela on developing joint companies, strategic alliances, gas and oil exploration, exploitation and refining agreements. Ecuador despite being a major oil producer has just three refineries refining only 176,000 barrels a day. The new refinery will have the capacity to refine 300,000 barrels per day.

Despite this important joint venture, Correa’s position in relation to Venezuela is complicated by two other factors. One is that Ecuador‘s new Constitution will be put to a referendum in September after deliberations by a Constituent Assembly that have lasted eight months. So any important change in Ecuador‘s foreign relations – like joining ALBA, if that is still on the cards – will have to wait on popular ratification of the new Constitution.

Another major factor in Rafael Correa’s calculations is the issue of a medium-term renewal of the US Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Ecuador, with non-oil exports to the US worth hundreds of millions of dollars has been the leading beneficiary of the ATPDEA, slightly ahead of Colombia and Peru. The US Congress renewed the Act in February this year for ten months until the end of 2008. In 2006, Ecuador‘s exports to the US were worth over US$6bn, of which about US$4.5bn was oil.

All this context renders more explicable Ecuador‘s decision not to join ALBA for the moment. It already has substantial favourable energy deals with Venezuela. It has important commercial relations with the US and its Andean neighbours. So it makes sense for Ecuador‘s government to pace whatever future changes it may have in mind in accordance with its own priorities rather than hurry along at the pace of countries like Venezuela or Bolivia.

That does not mean Correa himself is not committed to change, especially in relation to regional integration. Ecuador has been a prime mover in setting up the Bank of the South along with Argentina and Venezuela. They have brought on board Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Colombia and Surinam have also applied to participate. The Bank of the South should start operations later this year with a capital of between US$7bn and US$10bn – another step forward in the steady advance of regional integration. During the visit by President Chavez to Ecuador to initiate the refinery project, Rafael Correa described the integration process in Latin America as "irreversible".

The United States is at the margins of and in conflict with that process because the US government has proved incapable of adapting appropriately to its declining power and influence in the region. Its political, economic and diplomatic failure has set the scene for the unconvincing amateur dramatics of the State Department’s Poor Tom Shannon. Clinging to a dog-eared, bowdlerized script with crucial passages torn out, Condoleezza Rice and John Negroponte watch from the wings.  The audience of fact-proof people from Congress suspend their disbelief.

US government foreign policy is a menacing fiasco and will be just the same under the next US government – whether the winner in November is the militarist plutocrat nominee John McCain or whether it is the militarist plutocrat nominee Barack Obama. Governments outside the US are well aware, President Chavez has for years consistently advocated a peaceful solution to Colombia‘s civil war. He has worked tirelessly to secure the release of prisoners held by the FARC. But in the United States‘ political classes, ignorance, bigotry and denial reign.

As Machetera’s blog has noted, when asked during an interview given in Denver to Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper, whether Hugo Chavez represents a threat, Barack Obama replied, “Yes, I believe he’s a threat, but a manageable one….We know for example, that he may have been involved in supporting the FARC, harming a neighbor. This is not the kind of neighbor we want. I believe that it’s important, through the Organization of American States (OAS) or the United Nations, to initiate sanctions that say that this behavior is unacceptable." As Sam Beckett wrote, "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing-new."

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