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An End to Interventionism in Venezuela

by Nikolas Kozloff on Dec 1, 2006

With the Dec. 3 presidential election in oil-rich Venezuela, the time has come for an overhaul of the Bush administration’s catastrophic policy in that South American country. The U.S. channeling of millions of dollars to Venezuelan organizations, many of which are critical of President Hugo Chavez’s regime, is hugely destabilizing and will foster great acrimony and distrust between the two nations.

U.S. meddling has stirred up resentment left over from April 2002 when Chavez was briefly overthrown in a coup. Prior to the coup, U.S. policymakers met with the plotters and funneled money to the opposition through the U.S. taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

Chavez has accused his electoral opponent, Manuel Rosales, the governor of the western state of Zulia, of fostering a separatist movement, together with “Mr. Danger” (Chavez’s name for President Bush).

The Venezuelan attorney general has initiated an investigation to determine whether one right-wing organization is guilty of treason. The group, Rumbo Propio (“Our Own Path”), has placed banners in oil-rich Zulia state advocating regional separation.

Rosales is a right-wing politician who signed the infamous “Carmona Decree,” dissolving Venezuela’s democratic institutions during the 2002 coup. He has been criticized by Chavez officials for not condemning Rumbio Propio and its calls for Zulia secession.

The United States, according to Chavez, is encouraging unrest so as to benefit from the state’s significant oil resources. Government officials have also claimed that U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield met with members of Rumbo Propio to encourage secession.

Indeed, the United States has long played a prominent political and economic role in Zulia and throughout Venezuela. In 1926, the USS Niagara arrived in Zulia, and the U.S. consul requested that U.S. sailors be allowed to celebrate there. When an officer attached to the Niagara requested permission to fly over Zulia for the celebration, the states president, Perez Soto, grew suspicious.

Reports reached him that the real reason for the flight was to take aerial photographs. Perez Soto disallowed the disembarking of the crew and refused to authorize the flight. He believed the Unites States wanted to station the Niagara in Venezuelan waters “as a kind of sentinel of North American interests.”

U.S. meddling in the current election smacks of earlier American gunboat diplomacy. In addition to aiding the opposition, U.S. officials have developed ties to individual politicians. The Venezuelan attorney general says Brownfield had a close relationship to Rosales and frequently traveled to Zulia. If Chavez is right and the Bush administration is encouraging secession, this cynical American strategy will most likely anger Chavez’s most determined followers in Zulia.

The president’s support in Zulia state is not insignificant. In recent years, the Bolivarian Circles, pro-Chavez grassroots groups that lobby the Venezuelan government for economic support, have expanded. According to Umberto Silvio Beltran, Zulia regional coordinator of the Bolivarian Circles, there are approximately 180,000 people involved in Circles in Zulia.

Chavez has good reason to believe the United States was involved in the 2002 coup. He has thus far presented no concrete proof of U.S. meddling in Zulia, but he is justifiably paranoid about American intentions.

What is most needed now is a less interventionist policy in Venezuela for the long term. The Democrats, having retaken Congress, could not only cut funding to the Venezuelan opposition but also hold hearings concerning the April 2002 coup. Such moves might ameliorate strained relations with Venezuela.

Such a conciliatory policy is sorely needed. Since the presidential term in Venezuela lasts six years, Chavez will be a force to be reckoned with. It is time for liberal Democrats in the House and Senate to stand up to the Bush administration and foreign policy hawks in their own party and restore a sense of rationality in our Venezuela policy.

Nikolas Kozloff is a senior research associate with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and the author of "Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left" (2008).