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Caracas Cables Pt II: Drug Trafficking Venezuelan Airline? Senator Dodd’s Meeting with Chávez; Wild West Border Region
For the past year or so, I've been writing steadily about WikiLeaks and U.S. diplomatic correspondence between various American embassies in Latin America and the State Department in Washington, D.C. It's a bit difficult for one person to stay on top of all the communication back and forth, and WikiLeaks' recent decision to place all of the remaining cables online has made the researchers' work even more of an uphill climb. In an effort to stay afloat, I decided to sift through many of these cables, taking note of intriguing, incendiary or just plain odd documents which may be worthy of further investigation. In coming weeks, I'll be publishing my own guide to the "Caracas cables" which may aid journalists, researchers or activists.
Drug Trafficking Airline?
More incendiary revelations from WikiLeaks: now comes a cable from 2008 reporting on U.S. wariness of Aeropostal, an airline whose owners, the Makled family, were "Venezuela's preeminent drug traffickers." When Aeropostal sought to extend its flights to the U.S., the American Embassy in Caracas recommended that the request be denied. Furthermore, diplomats believed that the Chávez government's decision to allow the Makleds to purchase Aeropostal "sheds further doubt on Venezuelan aviation security."
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was so worried about Walid Makled that it issued a report entitled "Venezuela: Business Entrepreneur Dominates Cocaine Trade." The report asserted that Makled leveraged "his involvement in the transportation industry to facilitate drug shipments and provide cover for his own illicit activities."
Speaking to the Americans, an Aeropostal representative rejected the allegations but admitted that the new owners of the airline "know nothing about aviation." U.S. diplomats however were unconvinced, remarking that "this claim of ignorance about aviation seems odd, when according to the DIA report, the Makleds own a small airport they use to ferry drugs to Mexico twice a week."
Dodd to Chávez: Give Peace Corps a Chance
In other news, WikiLeaks is filling in the gaps surrounding the tumultuous state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations during the Bush years, and there are some surprises in new cable releases. Take for example one report from 2005 detailing an unusual meeting between Chávez and Democratic Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. In an effort to dial back much of the ill will between Caracas and the Bush administration, Dodd met with the Venezuelan president at his headquarters in Miraflores palace.
Dodd spoke in Spanish, and by the end of the meeting an "effusive" Chávez was addressing the Senator on a first name basis. When Dodd however suggested that Chávez visit the United States and speak with members of Congress, the Venezuelan president "responded cautiously, saying a visit was unlikely asserting concerns about security."
Chávez added that "there were Venezuelans in the U.S. who called for his murder on public radio, others who engaged with paramilitary organizations to plan his overthrow, and former Venezuelan military officers who attempted to blow up foreign embassies in Caracas." What is more, the U.S. had not granted visas to some members of his security detail.
In a rather unlikely aside, the idealistic Dodd then suggested that Chávez invite the Peace Corps into Venezuela so as to heal relations with the United States. Dodd himself had been a Peace Corps worker at one time, and thought the organization could "assist poor communities in essential areas such as health and education." Hardly biting at the suggestion, Chávez responded "elliptically," commenting that "perhaps the governments of Latin America should consider a regional effort to fight poverty that would include the Peace Corps."
Wild West Border Region
If you thought Jesse James and the Wild West was chaotic, take a look at another WikiLeaks cable from 2003 detailing the state of the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier. In the Venezuelan border state of Táchira, ranchers were concerned about the Bolivarian Liberation Forces or FBL, which they accused of conducting kidnappings. The right wing Chávez opposition claimed the FBL had ties to the Venezuelan government, a charge vehemently denied by Caracas.
So far more or less easy enough to understand, but according to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas the porous border region had become increasingly anarchic and confused, with fellow leftists turning against each other in nasty internecine battles. Specifically, leftist camaraderie had broken down between the FBL, operating on the Venezuelan side of the border, and the ELN or Colombian National Liberation Army, operating from the other side of the frontier.
U.S. diplomats spoke with a local police chief who said that "terrorist groups had previously respected each others' turf as 'leftist brothers,' but this respect is breaking down, largely the fault of the FBL's 'disregard for business.'" Local ranchers had become so befuddled by this state of affairs that they now paid extortion money to "multiple groups" but even so still got kidnapped.
Speaking to the Americans, the local Chávez opposition in Táchira claimed that Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello had purchased a farm in the area which was used for training purposes. When asked to clarify, the Chávez government again vehemently denied the charges. In concluding, the U.S. ambassador declared "increasingly active and publicized, the FBL is making it difficult for government of Venezuela officials to deny its existence."
For the past year or so, I've been writing steadily about WikiLeaks and U.S. diplomatic correspondence between various American embassies in Latin America and the State Department in Washington, D.C. It's a bit difficult for one person to stay on top of all the communication back and forth, and WikiLeaks' recent decision to place all of the remaining cables online has made the researchers' work even more of an uphill climb. In an effort to stay afloat, I decided to sift through many of these cables, taking note of intriguing, incendiary or just plain odd documents which may be worthy of further investigation.
Chávez's Former Wife Herma Marksman
At the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, diplomatic staff routinely spoke to the rightist Chávez opposition during the Bush years. But in 2004, an odd encounter occurred between the Americans and Chávez's former wife, Herma Marksman, who held a rather disparaging view of the Venezuelan president. Marksman, a history professor who was married to Chávez between 1984 and 1993, told U.S. diplomats that the firebrand populist was ambitious from an early age and "even thought of running the country as a 20 year-old."
Later, as a junior officer, Chávez fell under the influence of Douglas Bravo, a former Communist and guerrilla leader from the 1960s. According to Marksman it was Bravo, and not Chávez, who developed the political philosophy of the Bolivarian Revolution. Though Marksman cast Chávez as an intellectual lightweight, she added that he "should not be underestimated." The Venezuelan was "an excellent storyteller, who often characterizes his opponents as devils, which is a powerful religious symbol to the poor."
According to Marksman, Chávez was unscrupulous, "trusted few people" and "does not have true friends." If he had a problem, Marksman added, Chávez would only confide in his brother Adan or Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Marksman remarked cryptically that several individuals within the Chávez government were "dangerous," including some figures in the inner circle such as Diosdado Cabello (for more on him, stay tuned for future posts).
Could the disgruntled Marksman have had some kind of personal or political axe to grind, and why did she agree to speak to the U.S. Embassy in the first place? It's unclear why the couple split in the 1990s, but diplomats wrote that Marksman may have been unhappy with Chávez's failed coup in 1992 against then president Carlos Andrés Pérez. "While Marksman's statements may be biased," the Americans wrote, "she does offer a unique perspective into the current president."
Chávez's "Half Brother"?
Another intriguing cable relates to Jesus Arnaldo Pérez, who was promoted to head the Ministry of Foreign Relations in 2004. According to U.S. diplomats, Pérez was Hugo's childhood friend, and "rumors abound that he is in fact the President's illegitimate half brother" and had the same father [I can't comment on the veracity of such claims, but for a photo of Pérez, who like Chávez has a wide face, click here]. The Americans wrote that Pérez was born in the town of Veguita in the provincial state of Barinas, close to Hugo's birthplace, and during Pérez's swearing in ceremony the president mentioned that the two had attended school together in Barinas.
Typically, U.S. diplomats refer to figures in the Chávez government in a rather smug and condescending fashion, and their report on Pérez was no exception. Commenting on Pérez, they remarked that the new Foreign Minister "is neither a convincing orator nor seems to possess a great intellect." "We see the appointment of Perez as Chávez's desire to surround himself with people who are loyal above all," the embassy concluded.
Perhaps, diplomats such as U.S. ambassador Charles Shapiro simply did not care for officials who would talk back to them. In March, 2004 Shapiro met with Pérez, who said the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship "could not get worse." Shapiro tried to reassure Pérez that there was no Bush plan to overthrow the Chávez regime, but "relations could indeed get much worse unless Chávez tempers his anti-U.S. remarks, personal insults and invective." Predictably, the meeting did not progress much from there amidst recrimination and a cloud of mutual suspicion.
Controversial Environmental Record
On another, unrelated note certain cables reveal the environmental dimension in Venezuelan politics. In 2009, the non-governmental organization Conservation International (or CI) decided to close its doors in Venezuela, "saying it wanted to focus on countries where it can have an impact on host government environmental policies." Speaking to U.S. officials, CI staff said that Venezuela was the only office Conservation International decided to shutter in Latin America. CI's partners, meanwhile, declared that the outfit's decision to leave represented "an enormous loss" for Venezuela, and left "more than 100 environmental experts with nowhere to go for funding."
According to CI, it would be impossible to re-enter Venezuela as long as Chávez remained in office and, in fact, another group called the World Conservation Society had been trying to obtain permission to operate in Venezuela for over a year without success. Moreover, CI claimed that a proposed "Law on International Cooperation" which would allow the central government to "manage and distribute" all international funding for NGOs, would be "devastating" to environmentalists operating in Venezuela.
Furthermore, CI was obliged to take a "low profile" in Venezuela, otherwise "the government would not have allowed CI to continue its work." At CI headquarters meanwhile, the top brass was "disgruntled with its inability to work with the Venezuelan government on programs or policy." Going off on a rant, CI officials stated that the "Ministry of Environment is staffed by radical, anti-US politicians focused on ideology with no funding for, or understanding of, environmental programs." To add insult to injury, the Venezuelan Park Service had changed directors six times in 12 months and there were "rumors it will be eliminated and not replaced."
Even worse, the Venezuelan head of U.S.-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) said the Chávez regime "would gladly sacrifice US NGO's expertise if they dare to adopt higher profiles in Venezuela as 'the anti-yankee discourse is more important to the government than its work on the environment.'" TNC was reportedly the only major environmental organization left in Venezuela, and foundations simply did "not trust the Venezuelan government and would not fund projects without an internationally recognized NGO to manage the money." As a U.S.-based NGO, TNC could not lobby the Venezuelan government, and staffers declined to comment for a New York Times article focusing on the group's work due to "fear of government retaliation."
Perhaps, Venezuela should have encouraged more NGO's to come to the country. According to a local environmental professor who spoke to the U.S. Embassy, Venezuela had experienced a "dramatic increase in deforestation" as "a direct result of government policies." Nevertheless, the expert conceded that it was difficult to come by official figures on deforestation because the government did not publish statistics on the matter. Environmentalists also believed that oil spills were on the increase, but similarly such claims were impossible to verify due to lack of official data.
Sarcastically, the U.S. Embassy wrote Washington that "claims that Chávez would be
Venezuela's 'first green president' now ring hollow." Perhaps, but the U.S. has failed to transfer clean technology to Latin America so as to head off dramatic climate change, and in fact has inveighed against those countries, including Venezuela, which press for tougher legislation to rein in global warming. Maybe, if Washington is so concerned about protecting the environment, it should help to move Venezuela and others beyond their petroleum-based economies and stop its addiction to Venezuelan oil.