Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Threats: real or imagined 

Today’s New York Times had an interesting article on Venezuela and its reaction to threats coming from the United States. Here are some excerpts:

CARACAS, Venezuela: The White House may be focused on Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez's most pressing concern seems to be the Bush administration. Or, as he frequently puts it, the administration's grand plans to kill him and invade this oil-rich country.

The threats are so great, Mr. Chávez has said, that he has been forced to cancel numerous public appearances and create a civilian militia force that will make the Yankee hordes "bite the dust." And he warns that if the Americans are so foolish as to invade, "you can forget the Venezuelan oil."

"If the government of the United States attempts to commit the foolhardy enterprise of attacking us, it would be embarked on a 100-year war," Mr. Chávez told Ted Koppel in a "Nightline" interview in September. "We are prepared. They would not manage to control Venezuela, the same way they haven't been able to control Iraq."

Wherever he can - in speeches, interviews, inaugurations of public works projects, his weekly television show - Mr. Chávez rings the alarm bell. "If something happens to me," he warned in August, "the responsible one will be President George W. Bush."


The whole war of words raises a question frequently asked in Caracas and Washington: Is Mr. Chávez paranoid or, as with Mr. Castro, is there some substance to his claim?

Or is Mr. Chávez simply out to raise his own standing as a regional leader by taking on an American president who is hugely unpopular in Latin America and widely regarded as a trigger-happy imperialist? After Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Chávez loudly accused Mr. Bush of bungling the rescue effort. On his trip to New York for a United Nations summit meeting in September, he made it a point to veer into two heavily Democratic and poor neighborhoods of the Bronx, where he offered to provide home heating oil at cut-rate prices and to underwrite an environmental study of the polluted Bronx River.

"He said, 'I don't have a problem with the American people; I have some problems with some people in the American government,' " recounted Representative Jose E. Serrano, a Bronx Democrat who had invited Mr. Chávez to the borough. "He then held up both flags."

Mr. Serrano added, "You cannot deny that there are some people in this government who would like to see Chávez gone."

Bush administration officials may not hide their distaste for Mr. Chávez - that, everyone agrees, is a big part of the problem - but American officials still cringe at the accusations, which they dismiss as ludicrous.

"The U.S. has not planned, is not planning, will not plan and cannot plan to assassinate Hugo Chávez," the American ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said in Caracas. "It would be a violation of both U.S. law and policy."

In Venezuela, though, where state television has broadcast video images of American officials criticizing Mr. Chávez as the evil empire music from "Star Wars" plays in the background, the threat is taken seriously. After all, as Venezuelan officials frequently point out, it was not all that long ago that the Bush administration gave tacit support to a coup that briefly toppled Mr. Chávez.

Venezuela has purchased 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia and is acquiring combat planes from Brazil. Across the country, civilian militias are hard at work preparing for war, training volunteers like Josefina Rojas, 43, who showed up at a National Guard base on a recent day.

"I want to protect the president," she said. "I would defend the fatherland."


In the poor barrios where Mr. Chávez draws much of his support, residents worry about C.I.A. infiltrators and reports of American warships off the coast. People often watch the president on television, and are ready to heed his warnings.

"You have to prepare, the president says so," said José Gutiérrez, 42. "He's telling the truth. If the president says something, then it's true."

Another stalwart is Bleidis Cabarcas, 49. "Can you imagine if they kill him, all this would end," she said in her home, where a picture of Mr. Chávez hangs on a wall. "But you see what happened in Iraq and other places. Venezuela cannot let this happen here."

Now there are some interesting points to be made reagarding this article. First the U.S. dismisses claims about its intent to assassinate Chavez – or do they? Does anyone expect U.S. government officials to ever give an honest answer about this? I mean really, do you think a U.S. government official would say “yeah, were in the final stages of preparations to assassinate him, we hope to be able to do it before the end of the year”? Hardly.

Further, in my book the denial isn’t all that convincing. Just saying your not doing it because it would be against U.S. laws doesn’t mean anything – we saw clearly the other day the U.S. doesn’t even obey its own constitution. But more importantly, even if the U.S. doesn’t directly assassinate Chavez they could very easily try to organize a group of Venezuelans, or Colombians, or any other nationality to do it. You know, it would work like torture were the U.S. doesn’t always torture prisoners itself but sends them to other countries where the police of U.S. puppet regimes torture them. Just as the U.S. has “outsourced” a lot of its jobs and torture it could “outsource” its assassinations too.

So a word to the wise for Chavez – be careful. Be very, very careful. Have no doubt, those who desperately seek your ouster are frustrated and desperate. Coups, strikes, and elections have not worked for them. The next logical step for them is to try assassination. Rest assured they will take that step.

The article also seems to place the formation of a militia in the context of a possible assassination of Chavez. But this is a mistake as a militia will not do anything to protect Chavez from an assassin. What it will do is help protect Venezuela against a U.S. invasion no matter how improbable that may seem at the moment. But even more importantly it will serve to defend and protect Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Lets remember that not that long ago part of the armed forces attempted to depose Chavez and actually succeeded temporarily.

The logical conclusion to draw is that it is a mistake to completely trust the military and allow it to have a monopoly on force. There needs to be a counterweight to it, such as a popular militia, that can help ensure it will not be able to act against the government. This same lesson can be learned from the experience of others too. For example, some say that Salvador Allende made a mistake in trying to distribute weapons to civilians in Chile in 1973. They claim that by doing this he provoked the military into action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Allende’s mistake was not distributing weapons – it was waiting too long to do it. That mistake was paid for not only with his life but the lives of thousands in Chile who wanted to build a better and more just society. Chavez is wise enough not to make the same mistake.

Nevertheless, the article as a whole does give a fair appraisal of the threats Venezuela finds itself under and the appropriate actions it is taking in response. Further it is good to see the some of the old myths about Chavez being against the U.S. dispelled. Says Chavez: “I don't have a problem with the American people; I have some problems with some people in the American government”. Don’t we all.


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