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Another Saber Rattler in Latin America: Robert Gates and Venezuela

Now that Robert Gates has been confirmed by the Senate, the question becomes: what does the emergence of the new Defense Secretary mean for Latin America? Under Gates’ disgraced predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. pursued a bellicose stance towards leftist regimes such as Venezuela. Rumsfeld led the charge against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, remarking that "He’s a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally."

Predictably, Venezuela’s response was not long in coming. Vice-president José Vicente Rangel categorized Rumsfeld’s statements as "desperate" and "irrational." He strongly attacked the U.S. Defense Secretary, commenting that it was Bush, not Chavez, who most resembled Hitler. "If some politician or President can be compared with Hitler, it is Bush, because he [Bush] has invaded countries, he has massacred people, he has created prisons in various parts of the world," Rangel said.

Undeterred, the indefatigable Rumsfeld barreled onwards, making completely unsubstantiated claims that Chavez had sought to foment unrest in Bolivia. At one point, he told reporters in Paraguay that "there certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways."

Rumsfeld’s comments prompted concern on Capitol Hill, even amongst fellow Republicans. Senator Arlen Specter, a member of the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Congress, grew alarmed that Rumsfeld’s hot headed stance towards Chavez was complicating joint U.S.-Venezuelan counter-narcotics efforts. In a letter to Rumsfeld, Specter said diplomatically, "it may be very helpful to U.S. efforts to secure Venezuela’s cooperation in our joint attack on drug interdiction if the rhetoric would be reduced."

Gates’ Predecessor: Ratcheting Up the Pressure on Venezuela

Even as the U.S. moved to arm the Colombian army to the teeth, Rumsfeld blamed Venezuela for destabilizing the Andean region. "I can’t imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47’s.," he said during a news conference in Brasília. "I just hopethat it doesn’t happen I can’t imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere," he added.

Needless to say, that kind of rhetoric didn’t help to smooth tensions. For years, authorities in Caracas have been worried about the lawless and violent 1,200 mile Colombian-Venezuelan border. Political violence from Colombia has spilled across the border, with the U.S.-funded Colombian military and right wing paramilitaries routinely making incursions into Venezuelan territory.

The paramilitaries, allegedly tied to the Colombian armed forces, have pursued refugees into Venezuela, where they have killed or kidnapped those fleeing the violence. Even worse, the Chavez government claims that Colombian paramilitaries have fired on Venezuelan security forces. Ongoing clashes have led to the untimely deaths of Venezuelan military personnel. Chavez has claimed, plausibly, that he needs to modernize the army so as to defend Venezuela’s westernmost frontier.

Chávez, angered by the ex-Secretary of Defense’s efforts to demonize Venezuela, called Rumsfeld a "war dog." In yet another memorable Chavez quip the Venezuelan President remarked, "The dog says in a cynical way that he knows no one who is threatening Venezuela, so he does not know himself. We should give the little dog a mirror so that he can see his face."

Rangel added to the anti-Rumsfeld broadside in Venezuela by remarking that the U.S. Defense Secretary was "The Lord of War." He then pointed to U.S. hypocrisy as regards arms buildups. "In Venezuela," he declared, "we are worried about the elevated military spending by the United States, which stands around 450 billion dollars what are they fearing in order to justify such high military spending?"

Gates: Bombing Nicaragua

On the surface at least, Gates’ ascendancy would seem to underscore a move away from the aggressive foreign policy espoused by neo-conservatives. Chavez himself has rejoiced in Rumsfeld’s political demise. The Venezuelan leader beamed as he read aloud a news story about the ex-Defense Secretary’s resignation. "Heads are beginning to roll," he said during a news conference. "It was about time he resigned. The president should resign now."

Chavez should think twice, however, before rushing into celebration. Robert Gates’ background suggests that he may pursue just as aggressive a policy as his predecessor in Latin America. Of particular concern is Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas recently returned to power under the leadership of Daniel Ortega. Given Gates’ historic opposition to the Sandinistas, it’s possible that the U.S. may try to destabilize the poverty-stricken Central American country once again.

In 1984, Gates, who was then CIA Deputy Director, recommended to his boss, William Casey, that the United States use air strikes to destroy Nicaragua’s "military buildup." In his memo, Gates remarked that he was advocating "hard measures" that "probably are politically unacceptable."

That kind of rhetoric and approach suggests that Gates may prove just as bellicose as the neo-conservatives. When he was queried about the Gates memo, Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. (an organization pledged to uncovering and declassifying information at the highest level of government), remarked "It sounds like Donald Rumsfeld. It shows the same kind of arrogance and hubris that got us into Iraq."

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Blanton added that Gates’ advocacy of bombing Nicaragua was extreme at the time. "It sure wasn’t a mainstream opinion," he said. "Most Americans thought we shouldn’t be doing anything in Nicaragua. How possibly was our national security interest at stake?"

When Congress forbade funding the Nicaraguan Contras, Ronald Reagan used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to fund the rebels. According to documents, Gates apparently knew about Oliver North’s efforts to raise money for the Contras; critics claim that the new Secretary of Defense did not undertake sufficient measures to stop the scheme from going ahead. Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who investigated the Iran Contra scandal, remarked that Gates was "less than candid" about his role in the affair but did not bring charges.

Gates, SAIC and Venezuela

The question now is whether Gates has changed his views regarding Latin America or still wants to provoke confrontation with leftist regimes. That issue has now become a prominent one, given the reemergence of Gates’ old nemesis, Daniel Ortega. Though Ortega has jettisoned much of his earlier anti-U.S. rhetoric, the Sandinista leader has cultivated a budding alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (for a detailed analysis of these developments, see my earlier Counterpunch piece, "In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?"). Nicaragua is dirt poor and wracked by debt, but Ortega can now count on oil shipments from Venezuela, a country which is wielding its political influence throughout the region.

Blanton has claimed that it would be a mistake to look at Gates’ 22-year old memo as a reflection of his current day thinking. When Gates came under scrutiny for his alleged role in Iran Contra and his bid to become CIA Director in 1987 proved unsuccessful, the ambitious intelligence man became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "chastened" and his earlier arrogance was "diminished." According to Blanton, Gates changed once he became CIA Director in 1991. "Very possibly," noted Blanton, "the Robert Gates nominated for secretary of Defense is the Robert Gates who is the best CIA director we ever had, and not the Robert Gates who was a ‘mini-me’ Rumsfeld."

Gates’s background, however, suggests that he may not significantly alter Rumsfeld’s Venezuela policy. In 1993 Gates left government after working 27 years in the intelligence business. But, he was never far from the corridors of power. Gates joined SAIC (Science Applications International Corp.), a shady contractor for the Pentagon, CIA and other federal agencies, where he served on the board of directors. SAIC, which reported $7.5 billion in earnings in 2005, is involved in everything from intelligence gathering to Iraqi reconstruction for the Pentagon.

Gates’ tenure at SAIC should give Chavez pause. As I document at great length in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), SAIC has played a dodgy role in Venezuela. In 1996, SAIC signed a joint venture with PdVSA (the Venezuelan state oil company) to handle the firm’s IT operations.

According to Chavez, however, the joint venture, called Informatica, Negocios y Tecnologia (known by its Spanish acronym INTESA), had ties to the CIA. SAIC, charged Chavez, was using INTESA as a means of conducting espionage. During the confrontational oil lock-out of 2002-3, when the Venezuelan opposition sought to bring the economy to a halt and force Chavez from power, PdVSA sustained serious damage to its IT system. The Chavez government claimed that INTESA was involved in the sabotage. When the lock-out fizzled, Chavez promptly discontinued INTESA.

Gates Sails through Senate Confirmation

Though Gates’s tenure on SAIC’s board of directors proved brief, he maintained ties to the company even after leaving when he joined the advisory board for VoteHere, an electronic voting machine firm tied to SAIC. Given his past involvement with SAIC, one would think that the Senate would have at least touched on the issue during the extraordinarily brief one day confirmation hearing.

I have reviewed the transcript from the hearing and neither the words "SAIC" nor "Venezuela" was broached by any Senator (not to mention Nicaragua). Gates was resoundingly confirmed by a vote of 95-2 in his new position. The two dissenting votes, in fact, did not come from Democrats but from pro-war Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Jim Bunning, who disliked Gates’ criticism of the war in Iraq.

The Democrats, coasting on their recent victory in the mid-term elections, had the opportunity during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing to show the American public that they were concerned about the direction of U.S.-Latin American relations. Though Rumsfeld, through his public utterances, did much to erode trust between Venezuela and the United States, the new Secretary of Defense could chart a new course. By failing to question Gates on his past or his views on Latin America, the Democrats have signaled that they are not overly concerned with reining in Bush’s hawkish foreign policy in the region.

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