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In light of the Salvadoran right's fear-mongering campaign in advance of the Central American nation's Sunday presidential election, which has sought to portray leftist candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as a kind of dangerous foreign agent of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, perhaps it's instructive to consider the political history of the past four years.
Bolivia, Presidential Election of 2005: Chávez and "Terrorists"
During the country's presidential election, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS campaigned on a progressive platform stressing resource nationalism. His opponent, conservative Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga of the PODEMOS or We Can party (no relationship to Barack Obama) claimed that Morales had ties to drug smugglers, terrorism, Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Quiroga, who pledged to pursue free trade policies, went down to ignominious defeat and got trounced by Morales, 54% to 28%.
Peru and Presidential Election of June, 2006: "Flagrant and Persistent" Meddling
After meeting with Chávez and Morales, the leftist Ollanta Humala, a former officer in the Peruvian army, declared himself part of "a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted." Adopting a nationalist platform, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and said he strongly opposed the free trade agreement that his country had signed with Washington.
When Chávez injected himself into the presidential contest by saying that Humala was the voice of the downtrodden and conservative Lourdes Flores was "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy," the Peruvian government briefly withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. During a runoff vote Flores was eliminated, thus leaving Humala and Peru's former President Alan García of the APRA Party or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance to face off against one another.
García finished second in that vote trailing Humala. During his first presidency García had espoused some progressive positions but now he referred to Chávez and Morales as spoiled children and "historical losers" when they criticized Peru's free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency was marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a "thief" and a "crook."
"I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru," Chávez declared. "To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!" the Venezuelan leader added. Chávez's comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country's internal affairs.
García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When the APRA man painted Humala as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive. When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. "Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty," García said. "They have defeated the efforts by Mr Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no," García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that "the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate."
Mexico and Presidential Election of July, 2006: López Obrador Is a "Danger"
Even though Chávez was not a candidate in the Mexican election which followed one month after Peru's contest, he was certainly a political specter. The election pitted leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution against two conservative candidates, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderón of the PAN or National Action Party. In early polling López Obrador, a populist mayor of Mexico City who had instituted socialist-style handout programs and who had spoken of his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had a clear lead over both candidates.
Trailing in public opinion surveys, Madrazo sought to take down his leftist challenger by linking him to Chávez. "There are clear similarities between Chávez and López Obrador," Madrazo said. "I see authoritarianism in them both." The PRI candidate added that López Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would avoid Mexico if the PRD candidate ever came to power. Madrazo declared, "I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez's government that I don't want to happen here." Going even further, Madrazo accused López Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and charged that the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the election.
Pro-business candidate Calderón joined in the pummeling. In his TV ads, he linked Obrador to Hugo Chávez and claimed that the PRD candidate was "a danger to Mexico." "Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico," remarked the Washington Post. "But some days it's been hard to tell. The Venezuelan president's face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country's bitter mudfest of a presidential race." A little known political activist group put Chávez on TV, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by an ominous voice-over which intoned: "In Mexico, you don't have to die to define your future -- you only have to vote!"
The Federal Electoral Commission ruled that Calderón's ads TV ads violated its rules and ordered him to withdraw them but only after the scare-mongering message had set in and Calderón had shot up in the polls. Encouraged by the successful result of Calderón's dirty campaign, the candidate's aides claimed that the Venezuelan Bolivarian circles -- small community groups supported by the Chávez government – were secretly working on behalf of López Obrador.
The leftist candidate of the PRD was known for his combative political style. Bizarrely however, López Obrador barely responded to the fear mongering campaign against him. Weeks passed until he finally disavowed a relationship with Chávez. Cowed by the right wing attacks, one presidential aide finally remarked "It's absurd. Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn't know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken."
The election itself was plagued with irregularities. When Calderón claimed victory, López Obrador cried fraud and called for street protests. The Electoral Tribunal ultimately ruled that Calderon had won the election by a very narrow margin and rejected Obrador's allegations.
Ecuador Presidential Election of October, 2006: "Colonel Correa"
The next setback for Chávez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader's would-be protégé, Rafael Correa, came in second against Álvaro Noboa in the first round of the country's presidential election. Correa, a leftist economics professor who criticized U.S.-style free trade, denied that Chávez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election. However, it was no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chávez's home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chávez's parents.
As the presidential campaign heated up, Noboa, a banana magnate, sought to label Correa as a Chávez puppet. In an allusion to Chávez's former military background, Noboa called his adversary "Colonel Correa." Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade Noboa even declared, "the Chávez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery."
If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas. Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chávez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush's friendship with the bin Laden family. "They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."
Chávez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chávez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence. The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chávez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential runoff, in which Correa came in second.
In his own inflammatory broadside, Chávez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right." In Ecuador, Chávez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn't pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round." The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chávez's meddling.
In the end however, Noba's fulminations came to nothing: the Banana King came in second to Correa, losing 43% to 56% for Correa.
Nicaragua Presidential Election of November, 2006: Chávez's "Lieutenant" in Central America
In 2005, when Nicaraguan Sandinista leader traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chávez, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chávez's trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush's Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. "Central America's trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina," he said.
Such statements put Ortega at odds with the likes of U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick. "CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime," Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. "If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and others like them, leftist autocrats will advance."
As per Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chávez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chávez and Ortega were "a threat to regional and hemispheric stability," and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega's campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega denied the accusation]. "Ortega will become Chávez's lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc," Rizo added.
In the end however, Rizo's red-baiting was unsuccessful: the veteran Sandinista leader edged out his opponent by 10 points to win the election.
El Salvador: Chávez and His "Totalitarian" Projects
To listen to the Salvadoran right in advance of Sunday's presidential election, you'd think Mauricio Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, his opponent Rodrigo Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "There's a saying that 'Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,'" Ávila remarked. "And that's going to happen with them," he added. "No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela."
Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes's disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.
Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread "totalitarian projects" and wanted to "stick their noses" in anti-democratic practices. It was "no secret" Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received "its ideological nourishment from Havana" and its economic nourishment "from some other place." In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared "I am sure that there's some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador."
Latin American Right: Running On Empty
From Bolivia to Peru to Mexico to Ecuador to Nicaragua and now El Salvador, a clear pattern has emerged. The Latin American right knows that while it was in power, inequality and poverty increased and people hardly benefited economically from the extraction of natural resources. This put rightist politicians in a bind, since campaigning on U.S. - style economic policies and free trade was never going to be popular amongst electorates throughout the wider region.
In this sense, the Latin American right is in a similar dilemma to the Republicans in 2008. Like discredited John McCain, who represented the past and did not have any progressive economic ideas, today's conservatives in Latin America are running on empty and hence their desperate moves to insert Chávez into the political equation. Sometimes, as in Peru and Mexico, the right's strategy has succeeded whereas in other countries the tactic has failed. Arguably, Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric may have backfired in certain cases and wound up hurting progressive candidates.
Ironically, despite the right's claims, Chávez is hardly promoting revolution. Like other Latin American populists, Chávez has pushed economic redistribution but only up to a certain point. What's more, Venezuela is probably not in the position right now to advance an ambitious geopolitical agenda due to the fall in world oil prices. That hasn't stopped the right however from going negative and to claim that left candidates are intimately associated with Venezuela. For Latin American conservatives, it's probably the only card they have left.
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.